Revolution #150, December 14, 2008
From Phony Communism Is Dead...Long Live Real Communism! (2nd edition)
The Dirty Little Secret
of Capitalist Exploitation
Now, along with this, Marx also analyzed and laid bare the inner workings of the capitalist system itself and particularly what has been called “the dirty little secret of capitalist exploitation.” That is, he penetrated beneath the outer appearance of the relationship between the capitalist owners and the workers who labor under the command of the capitalists—a relationship which appears to be one of equality, an equal exchange of wages for work. Marx showed that this relationship, beneath its outer appearance of equality, contains a fundamental relationship of exploitation and oppression.
Marx did this not simply by denouncing the capitalists for being rich and not simply by showing the tremendous discrepancy between the immense wealth controlled by the capitalists and the abject poverty of the masses of workers. He penetrated to the inner essence of how this comes about and he also showed why it is no longer necessary. Capitalism is not only a generalized commodity-producing society where things—or things of real and social importance—are overwhelmingly produced not for immediate use but in order to be sold for a money price; beyond that, capitalism is characterized by the fact that labor power (the ability to work) has itself become a commodity.
As a commodity, labor power has value, the same as all commodities do. The value of this commodity, labor power, is determined in the same way, by the same measure, as all commodities—by the socially necessary labor time required to produce that commodity (the labor time actually necessary under the prevailing social conditions of production). This means that the value of the commodity, labor power, is equal to the value of the things (commodities) that are required to keep the workers alive, able to work, and able to produce new generations of workers. While the specific level of development of the productive forces may vary from one capitalist country to another, nevertheless in capitalist society, generally, the value of the commodity labor power is less than the total value produced by the workers during the time they are working for the capitalists. Thus, part of the labor of the workers is paid labor—labor spent producing an amount of value equal to the value of their labor power (corresponding to their wages); but the other part is unpaid labor—labor spent producing value for which the workers receive no equivalent in exchange, value which is entirely appropriated by the capitalists.
This is the source, and the only source, of the profit of the capitalists—the source of their personal income but, more than that, the source of their ability to reinvest and expand their capitalist enterprise. It is the source of their ability to control society and finance the institutions, in particular the political and military institutions, which in turn are used to suppress the working class and the masses of people.
Now, in any society where a surplus is produced beyond what people need for mere survival, it will be the case that this surplus will not simply be divided among the people, or else there would be no way for society’s productive forces to qualitatively develop, no way to provide for possible natural disasters or other unforeseen developments, no way to provide for the administration of society and for people’s educational, cultural, and other needs, and so on. Marx emphasized that this would be true in communist society no less than under capitalism. But he also emphasized the radical difference that, in communist society, the appropriation of the surplus and its allocation for various social needs will be regulated by the people themselves—by a society of freely associated human beings, without class distinctions—just as the process of production itself will be. By contrast, in capitalist society, the production process and the appropriation and allocation of the surplus is controlled by a class standing above and dominating those who produce that surplus—and social wealth as a whole—the working people. The more the workers slave under capitalism the more they strengthen the power of capital, the more they re-create and fortify the conditions of their own enslavement.
In short, Marx showed that the production of value and particularly of surplus value—that is, the value created by the workers in producing, as commodities, the products of capitalist society; and within that the extra value for which the workers get nothing, but which goes to the capitalists—is the driving force of capitalist accumulation. It is the inner essence of capitalist society, “the dirty little secret of capitalist exploitation,” and the basis of the oppression of the proletariat. And, Marx explained, the subordination of the workers to the process of capitalist accumulation reduces them to a situation where they can live only so long as they can work, and they can work only so long as a capitalist can make sufficient profit by exploiting them. Thus, at one and the same time, capitalism results in and depends upon the ruthless exploitation of the workers who are employed and the existence of workers who are unemployed—a “reserve army of labor” whose ranks swell to huge numbers in times of economic crisis under capitalism.
Thus, Marx showed that, while the workers must fight to keep from being crushed and broken under the capitalist system, no struggle that is limited to the demand for the improvement of their conditions within the capitalist system can fundamentally alter the situation of the working class: only by rising up, recognizing its higher interest as a class, overthrowing the capitalist system, and moving on to carry out the communist transformation of society can the working class fundamentally change its own condition and that of humanity as a whole.
In his development and application of historical materialism, Marx (together with Engels) had brought to light how the emergence of relations of exploitation and oppression—including, as one of the most fundamental aspects of this, the emergence of social conditions that resulted in the oppression of women—was bound up with the development of class divisions, which in turn was bound up with certain phases of the development of production. Marx went on to show how capitalism represents the last of these phases of production—the last form of human society in which class division and social antagonisms will exist—and how the proletariat, through its revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and radical transformation of society, will abolish all forms of exploitation and oppression and all class distinctions.
At the same time, Marx emphasized and explained why the proletariat, as opposed to all other classes in contemporary society and indeed in history, must have internationalism as its outlook, as opposed to nationalism. Even though in the bourgeois era the world is divided into different nations, the proletariat is an international class and its interests, as a class, lie in achieving communism worldwide. Indeed, communism can only be achieved on a worldwide basis—by eliminating relations of exploitation and social antagonism, oppression and inequality, throughout the globe.
That internationalism is the outlook and the political stand of the proletariat is based on a fundamental reality, the reality of the capitalist system itself as a world system of commodity production and of exploitation. A system which requires and necessitates and increasingly draws together a world market and subordinates it to the domination of capital; and which, particularly in its imperialist stage (as will be discussed shortly), integrates the entire world economy into its process of accumulation, though this involves many different particular systems of production and countries at different levels of development. Thus Marx showed that internationalism must be the outlook of the proletariat and that, as Marx put it, only by emancipating all mankind could the proletariat emancipate itself.
And, just as Marx exposed the inner essence of the relationship between the capitalists and the workers (between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat) within capitalist society itself, he also exposed the plunder and colonial depredations of England and other major capitalist countries in India, Egypt, China, and all over the world. As Marx summarized, with powerful sweep and irony:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. (Marx, Capital, New York: International Publishers, 1970, v. 1, p. 751)
Marx revealed not only how all of this was inseparably linked with capitalism, but, moreover, how the proletarian revolution would finally put an end to all of this, on a worldwide basis. And, as a practical expression of this, Marx (together with Engels) was in the leadership in the founding of the first international organization of workers from different countries, known as the First International.
Here we must stop and ask, are these fundamental principles of communism and the outlook and methodology that are their foundation—are these in any way “disproved by reality” or “outdated”? Do events in the world, do facts, do the daily experiences of the masses of people not only in one country, including in the U.S., but all over the world—does all this show that these principles are not valid or not relevant? Do these principles no longer correspond to accurate descriptions or analysis of the daily occurrences and still more the inner essence and workings of the capitalist system and its relations within countries and internationally?
In no way—just the opposite! These principles of communism not only remain valid, but are more than ever the basis for piercing the fog of distortion spread by the spokesmen for the old order and grasping what is really going on in the world. They are the basis for correctly understanding and radically transforming the world in the interests of the masses of people and ultimately humanity as a whole.
But Marxism is a living science and continues to develop with the development of, and with changes in, reality, including in human society. This leads to the discussion of the second great milestone of Marxism, which is Leninism.
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