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Karl Marx, Capital, volume 1, The Process of Capitalistic Production (1867)

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a philosopher, a propagandist, and a revolutionary – in that order. He may stand as nineteenth-century Germany’s most important and influential thinker. In 1867, Marx published the first volume of his magnum opus, Capital: The Process of Capitalistic Production [Das Kapital. Der Produktionsprozess des Kapitalismus]; the final volumes were published by his long-time collaborator (and co-author of the 1848 Communist Manifesto), Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). According to Marx, the driving force in history is class conflict and, in the modern era, the exploitation and alienation of labor under capitalism. The ultimate source of any profit is the surplus value [Mehrwert] of a product, which is usurped by the capitalist class and properly belongs to productive workers. This is the means whereby the capitalist class, and the capitalist system of production, exploits the working class, or proletariat. Marx’s theory of surplus value is outlined in the excerpt from Capital printed below. It is only one part – albeit a crucial one – of his comprehensive analysis of capitalism and its dysfunctions. With its ample use of illustrative examples, this passage is written in a style that is surprisingly accessible to even the uninitiated or skeptical reader.

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Let us now return to our would-be capitalist. We left him just after he had purchased, in the open market, all the necessary factors of the labour-process; its objective factors, the means of production, as well as its subjective factor, labour-power. With the keen eye of an expert, he had selected the means of production and the kind of labour-power best adapted to his particular trade, be it spinning, bootmaking, or any other kind. He then proceeds to consume the commodity, the labour-power that he has just bought, by causing the labourer, the impersonation of that labour-power, to consume the means of production by his labour. The general character of the labour-process is evidently not changed by the fact, that the labourer works for the capitalist instead of for himself; more-over, the particular methods and operations employed in bootmaking or spinning are not immediately changed by the intervention of the capitalist. He must begin by taking the labour-power as he finds it in the market, and consequently be satisfied with labour of such a kind as would be found in the period immediately preceding the rise of the capitalists. Changes in the methods of production by the subordination of labour to capital, can take place only at a later period, and therefore will have to be treated of in a later chapter.

The labour-process, turned into the process by which the capitalist consumes labour-power, exhibits two characteristic phenomena. First, the labourer works under the control of the capitalist to whom his labour belongs; the capitalist taking good care that the work is done in a proper manner, and that the means of production are used with intelligence, so that there is no unnecessary waste of raw material, and no wear and tear of the implements beyond what is necessarily caused by the work.

Secondly, the product is the property of the capitalist and not that of the labourer, its immediate producer. Suppose that a capitalist pays for a day’s labour-power at its value; then the right to use that power for a day belongs to him, just as much as the right to use any other commodity, such as a horse that he has hired for the day. To the purchaser of a commodity belongs its use, and the seller of labour-power, by giving his labour, does no more, in reality, than part with the use-value that he has sold. From the instant he steps into the workshop, the use-value of his labour-power, and therefore also its use, which is labour, belongs to the capitalist. By the purchase of labour-power, the capitalist incorporates labour, as a living ferment, with the lifeless constituents of the product From his point of view, the labour-process is nothing more than the consumption of the commodity purchased, i.e., of labour-power; but this consumption cannot be effected except by supplying the labour-power with the means of production. The labour-process is a process between things that the capitalist has purchased, things that have become his property. The product of this process also belongs, therefore, to him, just as much as does the wine which is the product of a process of fermentation completed in his cellar.

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