Raya Dunavevskaya 1979

Lecture 6
Part III. Chapters 10 and 11
The Working Day

“...so long, as the determination of value by working time is itself left ‘undetermined’, as it is by Ricardo,” Marx wrote Engels, “it does not make people shaky. But as soon as it is brought into exact connection with the working day and its variations, a very unpleasant new light dawns upon them.” (Marx-Engels Correspondence, pp. 231-2)

The “people” referred to are bourgeois professors, and the “unpleasant new light that dawns upon them” comes from the fact that the relationship of surplus value to exploitation can no longer be kept a secret since one is the exact expression for the degree of exploitation.

The very lengthy section on “The Working Day” will now prove his thesis historically. Here we see what is the real meaning of the expression, “self-expansion of value,” for the voice of the laborer, “stifled in the storm and stress of the process of production, rises” to tell the capitalist: “That which on your side appears a spontaneous expansion of capital is on mine extra expenditure of labour-power.” (258)

“Capital has not invented surplus labour,” Marx writes. “Wherever a part of society possesses a monopoly of the means of production, the labourer, free or not free, must add to the working time necessary for his own maintenance an extra working time in order to produce the means of subsistence for the owners of the means of production, whether this proprietor be the... Etruscan theocrat, civis Romanus, Norman baron, American slave owner, Wallachian Boyard modern landlord or capitalist.” (pp. 259-60)

Then Marx proceeds to determine precisely what is the specific nature of capitalism, as distinguished from all other forms of society: “It is, however, clear that in any given economic formation of society, where not the exchange-value but the use-value of the product predominates, surplus-labour will be limited by a given set of wants which may be greater or less, and that here no boundless thirst for surplus labour arises from the nature of the production itself.” (p. 260)

This “boundless thirst for surplus labour” expresses itself in the attempt, first, to extend the working day. The surplus value produced through the extension of the working day is called absolute surplus value: “The creation of a normal working day is therefore, the product of a protracted civil war, more or less dissembled, between the capitalist class and the working class.” (p. 327) It is here that Marx links the battle for a normal working day to the battle against outright slavery: “in the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin when in the black it is branded.” (p. 329)

In these seventy-five pages devoted to the working day, Marx not only shows how interrelated are theory and history, but since one reflects the other, his abstract theory of value has a most concrete policy flowing from it. This he counter-poses to the empty chatter of the bourgeois theorists: “In place of the pompous catalogue of the ‘inalienable rights of man’ comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working day, which shall make clear when the time which the worker sails is ended, end when his own begins.” (p. 330)

The Labor Process

Having established the relationship between the struggle for the normal working day and the theory of value, Marx now gives us the law governing the rate and mass of surplus value. Study carefully the formula on page 332 in order clearly to understand how the “Diminution of the variable capital may therefore be compensated by a proportionate rise in the degree of exploitation of labour power, or the decrease in the number of laborers employed by a proportionate extension of the working day.” (p. 333)

The extent of exploitation can best be grasped through a comprehension of the capitalist labor process. In the labor process in general, Marx tells us,, the laborer uses the means of production in order to fashion an article of utility. In the labor process of capital it is not the worker who uses the means of production but the means of production the worker,-The labor process has become a mere means for the creation of values. However, even as living labor can function only according to its specific skill, so accumulated labor can realize itself as value big with value by means of its inherent use-value. That is to say, just as yarn cannot become cotton, wood a chair, steel a tractor without uniting with living labor, and just as dead labor can preserve itself and become a greater value only by absorbing living labor, so accumulated labor can function only according to its use-value. That is what the “live monster that is fruitful and multiplies” does. The use-value of constant capital is the manner of its absorption of living labor as “the ferment necessary to their own life process” (p. 339)

Thus, “The means of production are at once changed into means of absorption of the labour of others. It is now no longer the labourer that employs the means of production, but the means of production that employ the labourer. Instead of being consumed by him as material elements of his productive activity, they consume him as the ferment necessary to their own life-process, and the life process of capital consists only in its movement as value constantly expanding, constantly multiplying itself.” (p. 339)

That, of course, does not change the fact that living labor is the only source of value, from which Marx deduces the law that “the greater the variable capital, the greater would be the mass of the value produced and of the surplus value.” (p. 334)

Marx tells us that “This law clearly contradicts all experience based on appearance. Everyone knows that a cotton spinner, who, reckoning the percentage of the whole of his applied capital, employs much constant and little variable capital, does not, on account of this, pocket less profit or surplus value than a baker, who relatively sets in motion much variable and little constant capital. For the solution of this apparent contradiction, many intermediate terms are as yet wanted...” (p, 335)

Classical political economy could not formulate this law although it held “instinctively to it, because it is a necessary consequence of the general law of value. It tries to rescue the law from collision with the contradictory phenomena by a violent abstraction.” (p. 335)

Marx continues: “t will be seen later how the school of Ricardo came to grief over this stumbling block.” The “later” referred to is not the chapter following. It appears first in his Theories of Surplus Value. No doubt we cannot fully understand how classical political economy tried to “rescue the law from collision with the contradictory phenomena by a violent abstraction” until we have covered the whole of CAPITAL, but still it will help us some to understand it further now, and hence the passage referred to by Marx from Theories of Surplus Value: (p. 184, Russian Edition)

“.. .he [Ricardo] has in mind only the quantitative determination of exchange value, that is, that it is equal to a definite quantity of labour time; but he forgets the qualitative determination, that individual labour must by means of its alienation be presented in the form of abstract universal social labour.”

Hence the capitalist labor process is a process of alienation which, precisely through the incessantly changing quantitative determination of exchange value – that is the socially-necessary labor time incorporated in a commodity – reduces the qualitative differences (that is, the various concrete, specific kinds of labor, such as mining or tailoring) to nothing but a mass of abstract labor.

Thus without understanding the dual character of labor it is impossible to understand the contradictions of capitalist production and hence Marx’s insistence that the analysis of the dual character of labor was pivotal to an understanding of political economy.

Hence, also, his insistence on a full comprehension of the inherent laws of capitalist production even in such seemingly individualist actions as that undertaken by capitalists in free competition are not due to “will” but to the inherent laws of capital let production: “Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.” (p. 297)


1. How is a normal working day determined? What relation has that to the class struggle?

2. If capitalism has not invented surplus labor, what distinguishes surplus labor under capitalism from that under other societies? How did the Boyard express this thirst for surplus labor?

3. What is the relationship of the Magna Charta to the theory of value? What, then, is the theory of value to the struggle between the capitalist and the laborer?

4. How was the independent movement of labor for the eight hour day hampered in the United States by the existence of slavery?

5. Write out the formula for” the mass of surplus value.

6. Why did classical economy hold instinctively to the law of surplus value, although it bad formulated no such law?

7. What does the following statement mean: “Free competition bring out the inherent laws of capitalist production in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.”

Compare your answer with the one you would get from the cross references on pp. 347 and 649.