NEWS & LETTERS, August-September 2007

From The Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya

Marxism and Political Economy


As part of our continuing exploration of Marx’s CAPITAL and the capitalist law of value, we are reprinting the conclusion of a series of lectures that Raya Dunayevskaya gave on Marx’s CAPITAL in 1945. The lectures were reprinted in 1979 in the pamphlet Outline of Marx’s ‘CAPITAL.’ All references to CAPITAL are to the edition published by Charles H. Kerr publishers in 1906. For  the text of all 14 lectures, see RAYA DUNAYEVSKAYA COLLECTION, 385-420.


All science, wrote Marx, “would be superfluous if the appearance, the form, and the nature of things were wholly identical” (CAPITAL, Vol. II, p. 951).

Marxian science separates the essential production relationship from its fetishistic appearance as a relation between things. At the same time it shows the dialectical relation between essence and phenomena. For essence must manifest itself, and its manifestation does reflect the true relationship, once you are aware that the underlying essence has an irrational form of manifestation.

Just as Marx’s abstract method of analysis is derived from the concrete history of developing capitalism, so his analysis of the use-value and value of a commodity is derived from an analysis of the dual character of labor. This, says Marx, is “the pivot on which a clear comprehension of political economy turns” (CAPITAL, Vol. I, p. 48). “I was the first to point out and to examine critically this two-fold nature of the labor contained in commodities.”

It is evident that what makes all sorts of commodities—from apples to steel—commensurable are not their use-values, but the something that is common to all of them—the homogeneous human labor embodied in them. All understanding of the facts, and Marx underlines the word, all, depends upon a comprehension of this dual character of labor—concrete labor creates use-values; abstract labor creates values.

This, then, is Marx’s original contribution to political economy. What is the significance of this “contribution” to political economy? A great advance in the evolution of political economy as a science was made when the source of wealth was recognized to be not in objects outside of man—precious metals or the earth—but in the function of man. The result of man’s labor was the source of private property. How is it, then, that the living embodiment of labor, the laborer, continues to remain poverty-stricken and the products of his labor are not his “private property”? Here classical political economy could offer no answer.


It is true, as the young Marx wrote in 1844, that “When one speaks of private property, one thinks of something outside of man. When one speaks of labor, one has to deal immediately with man himself. The new formulation of the question already involves its solution.” However, that new formulation of the question involved its solution, not when bourgeois economists tackled the problem, but when the revolutionist, Marx, did.

The difference between the science of economics “as such,” as a science of objective elements—wages, value, etc.—and the Marxian science of economics is that for Marx all economic categories are social categories. Thus Marxism incorporates into the science of economics the subjective element, the receiver of wages, the source of value, in other words, the laborer.

It is impossible to disassociate property forms from production relations. The laborer, whose function, labor, creates bourgeois wealth and his own impoverishment is opposed to his domination by a product of his own labor. He rebels against the mode of labor, and thus becomes the gravedigger of bourgeois private property. Capitalist private property thus contains within itself the seed of its own disintegration.

It is for this reason that the classical economist, limited by the concepts of his class which blurred his vision as to the historic nature of the capitalist mode of production, could not probe the problem to the end. He failed to see that the living embodiment of the source of wealth, the laborer, would bring to a head and to an end all the contradictions inherent in capitalist private property.

In observing the structure and content of CAPITAL, we have noted that Marx, first, describes capitalist wealth as it appears—a vast accumulation of commodities. Parts I and II deal with the buying and selling of commodities, including the commodity, labor power. Marx then leaves the sphere of exchange, or the market, and for the next 389 pages—which comprise Parts III, IV and V—he analyzes the pure essence of capitalist society: the production of surplus value. When we next return to a phenomenon—that of wages, covered in Part VI—we no longer deal with a phenomenon abstracted from production relations. We now consider it as a manifestation of that very production relationship between capital and labor.

Marx’s theory of value is his theory of surplus value. Moreover, his abstract definition of value is rooted deep in the concrete history of developing capitalism. Marx traces in detail the concept of the working day and the history of its limitation; in the beginning the capitalist could extract surplus value from the worker only through lengthening of the working day, with the state intervening on behalf of the budding capitalist. This is the period of the production of absolute surplus value.

The establishment of a normal working day, says Marx, is the result of centuries of struggle between capitalist and laborer. It connects with the highest stage of development of capitalist production, machinofacture, which makes possible, within the same working day, the extraction of ever greater masses of surplus value. Though the worker now labored eight hours instead of 11, only two of these eight hours are necessary to produce the means of subsistence of the laborer, so that the capitalist gets fully six hours of unpaid labor. The extraction of relative surplus value Marx calls the specifically capitalist method of extracting surplus value because it is here that the inversion of dead to living labor “acquires technical and palpable reality.”

Only in capitalist society does accumulated labor dominate living labor. There was dead labor, or machines, or at least tools in pre-capitalist societies, but they did not dominate living labor. The savage was complete master of his bow and arrow. The serf was without a tractor and had to use a wooden hoe, but that crude instrument did not have a value that asserted its independence in the process of production as a “live monster that is fruitful and multiplies” so that the energy of the living laborer was a mere means for its expansion.

The machine age has brought about the complete inversion of dead to living labor. Moreover, more and more machines need less and less labor and more and more perfect machines need less and less skill in the general mass of human labor. That is why the capitalist, the agent of value, cares naught about the specificity of the labor of the individual laborer.


Whether he is a shoemaker, shipyard worker or assembly laborer, the capitalist sees that he uses up only as much time as is socially necessary in the production of commodities. The incessantly changing quantitative determination of exchange values—eight hours were socially necessary for the production of a commodity; only six hours are necessary today, and only four will be necessary tomorrow—is the law which compels the capitalist to use one factor of production, accumulated labor, against another factor of production, living labor. By means of his factory clock, he bludgeons the worker to produce as many units as is socially necessary—no matter whether the worker be a miner or a tailor.”

There is no such thing as an abstract laborer, yet all produce abstract values. The socially-necessary labor time is the solvent which reduces the aggregates of concrete labor into a general mass of abstract labor. Marx calls this the real subordination of labor to capital.

Capital has not invented surplus labor; in all class societies surplus labor was extracted from the worker for the master class. What distinguishes one economy from another is, however, the manner in which this extraction is accomplished. In capitalist society this is accomplished by accumulated labor, machines, for which living labor is the mere ferment necessary to its self-expansion. The capitalist’s domination over the living laborer is only “the mastery of dead over living labor.”

Constant and variable capital are not merely the outer covering of an old relationship; they are the innermost essence of the capitalist mode of production revealing that society in what Marx called its “particular distinctiveness.” The basic antagonism between use-value and value reside in the commodity, labor power, whose utilization produces all surplus value. That commodity, in the process of production, and not in the market, creates a greater value than it itself is. “It is every bit as important,” writes Marx, “for a correct understanding of surplus value, to conceive it as a mere congelation of surplus labor-time” as nothing but materialized surplus-labor, as it is, for a proper comprehension of value, to conceive it as a mere congelation of so many hours of labor, as nothing but materialized labor” (p. 241).

The law of surplus value seems to contradict all phenomena based on experience for everyone knows that the baker who uses more living laborers relative to means of production does not get more profit than the steel manufacturer who uses relatively less variable as compared to his constant capital. Nevertheless, the law not only is true, but competition, which seems to be a matter of will, is, in reality, only a reaction to the inherent law of capitalist production. But, warns Marx, let us not worry about competition and profit, and stick to essentials: “The rate of profit is no mystery, so soon as we know the laws of surplus value. If we reverse the process, we cannot comprehend either the one or the other” (p. 239, footnote).

Surplus value is a given magnitude, the sum total of unpaid hours of labor. “The breaking-up of surplus value into fragments,” writes Marx, “neither alters its nature nor the conditions under which it becomes an element of accumulation.” Neither does the rate of accumulation depend upon either his consumption, or a middle man’s commission, or his will. Accumulation, depending as it does on the magnitude of surplus value, the degree of exploitation and the productivity of labor, is fundamentally a simple process of exploitation. But this simple process of production and reproduction is obscured by the process of circulation. This is why, from the very beginning, in his prefaces, Marx states that he is not interested in subjective motivations, but only in objective conditions: “Individuals are dealt with only insofar as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class relations and classes. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains” (p. 15).

Marx has therefore analyzed the capitalist mode of production from the point of view of the laws of production “working with iron necessity towards inevitable results” (p. 13). The inevitable results are dealt with in the theoretical climax to Marx’s work, the Accumulation of Capital. This Part VII and the historical illustrations of its genesis in Part VIII we can deal with under the heading of “The Law of Motion of Capitalist Society.” It is the discernment of this law, we must remember, which Marx set as the task of his work.

From the beginning of CAPITAL we learned of the interdependence of use-value and value. Value, wrote Marx, may be indifferent to the use-value by which it is borne, but it must be borne by some use-value. This bodily form assumes added significance in the question of accumulation or expanded reproduction: “Surplus value is convertible into capital solely because the surplus product whose value it is, already comprises the material elements of new capital” (p. 636).

Capital, which is “value big with value,” deepens the contradiction between use-value and value. This is so because not only are the material and value forms of capital in constant conflict, but so are the class relations which “interfere with” the production process. Capital, Marx held, is not a thing but a relation of production established by the instrumentality of things. Expanded production further aggravates this class relationship which is produced and reproduced by capitalist production. Capitalist private property “turns out to be the right on the part of the capitalist to appropriate unpaid labor of others or its product, and to be the impossibility, on the part of the laborer, of appropriating his own product” (p. 640).


Out of the innermost needs of capitalist production, whose motive force is the production of surplus value, comes the drive to pay the laborer the minimum and to extract from him the maximum. The class struggle produced thereby leads, under certain circumstances, to a rise in wages. But that rise is never so high as to threaten the foundations of capitalist production. The law of value, dominating over this mode of production, leads, on the one hand, to the centralization of the means of production and, on the other hand, to the socialization of labor.

The centralization of the means of production ends first in trustification and, ultimately, in statification. But big capital which kills little capital cannot kill the workers who produce it. The socialization of labor brings masses of workers into large factories where production disciplines them and prepares them for revolt at the very time that they are degraded to “an appendage to a machine.”

This dialectical development is accompanied by centralization reaching a point where the entire social capital is “united, either in the hands of one single capitalist, or in those of one single corporation” (p. 688). This ultimate development in no way saves capitalist production from its “absolute general law”—the reserve army of labor. “But in fact it is the capitalistic accumulation itself that constantly produces and reproduces in the direct ratio of its own energy and extent a relatively redundant population of laborers, i.e., a population of greater extent than suffices for the average needs of the self-expansion of capital, and therefore a surplus population” (p. 691).

This failure to give “full employment” to labor shakes the whole structure of capitalist society. Marx emphasizes that “every special historic mode of production has its own special laws of population, historically valid within its limits alone” (p. 693). For capitalist production, as we saw, that law was the law of the surplus army, surplus, that [is], to the capitalist mode of production.

The incapacity of capitalism to reproduce its own value-creating substance—labor power in the shape of the living, employed laborer—signals the doom of capitalism. Marx defines this doom in the final part—Part VlII—where he, first, deals with the historical genesis and then with the historical tendency of capitalistic accumulation.

The historic beginnings of capitalism, described under “The So-Called Primitive Accumulation of Capital,” has highly charged agitation material. The fact that Marx relegates this material to the end instead of the beginning of CAPITAL, cannot be overestimated. It means that Marx wished, above all, to analyze the law of development of capitalism. For, no matter what its beginnings were, the contradictions arise not from its origin but from its inherent nature, which “begets with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation” (p. 837).

The law of motion of capitalist society is therefore the law of its collapse. Marx discerned this law through the application of dialectical materialism to the developmental laws of capitalist production.

We see, furthermore, that the basis of Marx’s most abstract theories is the class struggle itself; that an integral part of his theory of accumulation is the mobilization of the proletariat to revolt against the production relations which hamper the full development of the productive forces into “a higher form of society, a society where every individual forms the ruling principle” (p. 649).

It is because Marx based himself on the inevitability of socialism that he could discern the law of motion of capitalist society, the inevitability of its collapse. It was this that gave the force, the direction, and the profundity to his analysis of capital.

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