Raya Dunavevskaya 1979

Lecture 12
Part VII Chapter 25
The Lot of the Working Class

The concluding chapter of this part, “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation is by far the most basic to the theory of capitalist development. In reviewing it we must go rather slowly because in the treatment of the organic composition of capital Marx anticipates the treatment be accords it in the section on the Declining Rate of Profit in Volume XII, and thus |a full understanding of this chapter will help us when we get to that volume.

Of decisive Significance in understanding what is the general law of accumulation is the recognition that the lot of the working-class is as integral a part of this law as the organic composition of capital. This is not “mere” agitation, but can be expressed in the most precise technical terms. The organic composition of capital is the interrelationship between its value composition, or the proportion between constant and variable capital, and its technical composition, or the division between means of production and living labor power.

The way this affects the lot of the workers is as follows: “Production of surplus value is the absolute law of this mode of production. Labour-power is only saleable so far as it preserves the means of production in their capacity of capital, reproduces its own value as capital and yields in unpaid labour a source of additional capital.” (p. 678)

Hence a wage rise could never reach the point where it would threaten the system itself: “Either the price of labor keeps on rising because its rise does not interfere with the progress of accumulation...Or, on the other hand, accumulation slackens in consequence of the rise in the price of labour, because the stimulus of gain is blunted. The rate of accumulation lessens; but with the lessening the primary cause of that lessening vanishes, i.e., the disproportion between capital and exploitable labour-power. The mechanism of the process of capitalist production removes the very obstacles that it temporarily creates. The price of labour falls again to a level corresponding with the needs of the self-expansion of capital, whether the level be low, the same as, or above, the one which was normal before the rise of wages took place.” (pp. 678-9)

Marx summarizes this in the following formulation; “To put it mathematically, the rate of accumulation is independent, not the dependent variable, the rate of wages, the dependent, not the independent variable,” (p. 679) Or, in other words, the rise of wages therefore is confined within limits that not only leave intact the foundations of the capitalist system, but also secure its reproduction on a progressive scale. The law of capitalist accumulation, metamorphosed by economists into a pretended law of nature, in reality merely states that the very nature of accumulation excludes every diminution in the degree of exploitation of labour, and every rise in the price of labour, which could seriously imperil the continual reproduction on an ever enlarging scale, of the capitalistic relation. It cannot be otherwise in a mode of production in which the labourer exists to satisfy the needs of self-expansion of existing values, instead of on the contrary, material wealth existing to satisfy the needs of development on the part of the labourer. As, in religion, man is governed by the products of his own brain, so in capitalistic production he is governed by the products of his own hand.” (pp. 680-l)

Growth of Constant Capital At the Expense of Variable Capital

Marx now turns his attention to the conditions arising from a change in the organic composition of capital. The law governing this change is the progressive increase of constant capital in proportion to variable capital.(Labor-power or the wage-fund to buy it.)

Accumulation of capital, it is true, means expansion of production and hence the growth of the working population. However, the demand for labor comes not from total capital, but only from its variable component, which is relatively the smaller part. Moreover, the value of constant capital does not fully reflect the change in the composition of its material constituents. In order to hire more workers, not only is a greater wage fund needed but greater investment in factories, in means of production and raw materials. “Whereas formerly an increase in capital by 20 percent would have sufficed to raise the demand for labour by 30 percent, now this latter rise requires a tripling of the original capital.” (p. 683)

Marx continues:

“This diminution in the variable part of capital as compared with the constant, or the altered value composition of the capital, however, only shows approximately the change in the composition of its material constituents. If, e.g., the capital-value employed today in spinning is 7/8 constant and 1/8 variable, whilst at the beginning of the 18th Century it was 1/2 constant and 1/2 variable, on the other hand, the mass of raw material, instruments of labour, etc. that a certain quantity of spinning labour consumes productively today, is many hundred times greater than at the beginning of the 18th Century. The reason is simply that, with the increasing productivity of labour, not only does the mass of the means of production consumed by it increase, but their value compared to this mass diminishes. Their value therefore rises absolutely, but not in proportion to their mass.” (p. 683)

Centralization of Capital

Marx now proceeds to analyze the effect of the concentration and centralization of capital upon the relationship of constant to variable capital. But, first, he warns that “The laws of this centralisation of capitals or of the attraction of capital by capital, cannot be developed here.” He does not deal with this until he reaches Volume III. Here he says, “A brief hint at a few facts must suffice.” (p. 686) However, what Marx calls a “brief hint” propounds astounding problems for the Marxist student. Here is how he develops his brief hint: “The battle of competition is fought by cheapening of commodities. The cheapness of commodities depends, coeteris paribus, on the productiveness of labour, and this again on the scale of production. Therefore the larger capitals beat the smaller...

Competition and credit, the two most powerful levers of centralisation, develop in proportion as capitalist production and accumulation do... Centralisation may take place by a mere change in the distribution of already existing capitals, a simple change in the quantitative arrangement of the components of social capital. Capital may in that case accumulate in one hand in large masses by withdrawing it from many individual hands. Centralisation in a certain line of industry would have reached its extreme limit, if all the individual capitals invested in it would have been amalgamated into one single capital."(pp. 686-8) This is trustification. This is the beginning of the second and the most important change Marx introduced into the French Edition of CAPITAL.

Moreover, Marx does not stop here since the development of the trust is only the limit of centralisation of capital in a specific line of industry. What is the limit of centralization of capital in a given country?

“This limit,” Marx writes, would not be reached in any particular society until the entire social capital would be united, either in the hands of one single capitalist, or in those of one single corporation.” (p. 688) We have here the prediction of state capitalism: “the entire social capital... united either in the hands of one single capitalist or in those of one single corporation.”

The General Absolute Law of Capitalist Production

The results of this act, continues Marx in this crucial addition to the French Edition of CAPITAL, has the same results whether accomplished by “the violent means of annexation” or “the smoother road of forming stock companies.”

The result is of a qualitative character; that is, it so revolutionises the technical composition of capital that it increases its constant at the expense of its variable constituent: “The specifically capitalist mode of production, the development of the productive power of labour corresponding to it and the change then resulting in the organic composition of capital, do not merely keep pace with the advance of accumulation, or with the growth of social wealth. They develop to a much quicker rate. If it was originally say 1:1, it now becomes successively 2:1, 3:1, 4:1., 5:1., 7:1., etc... The labouring population therefore produces, along with the accumulation of capital produced by it, the means by which it itself is made relatively superfluous, is turned into a relative surplus population.” (pp. 690-3)

“The greater the social wealth, the functioning of capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and therefore also the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productiveness of labour, the greater is the industrial reserve army. The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital, develop also the labour-power at its disposal... But the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active labour-army. the greater is the mass of a consolidated surplus population, ...and the greater is the official pauperism. This absolute general law of capitalist accumulation.” (p. 707)

This absolute general law dominates over production even when it has reached its ultimate development through statification. This law of capitalist accumulation means not only the polarization of wealth, the alienation of the products of labor from the laborer, but it means the alienation of his very capacity to labor. Marx’s description of the capitalist labor process is that it is a process wherein “all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the laborer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage to a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange him from the intellectual potentialities of the labour-process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour-process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. But all methods for the production of surplus value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of these methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulated, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse. The law, finally, that always equilibrates the relative surplus-population, or industrial reserve army, to the extent and energy of accumulation, this law rivets the labourer to capital more firmly than the wedges of Vulcan did Prometheus to the rock. It establishes an accumulation of misery, corresponding with an accumulation of capital. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time, accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole. i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.” (pp. 708-9)


1. Define the value-composition, technical composition and the organic composition of capital.

2. Explain the relation between the law of capitalistic accumulation and the laborer’s existence “to satisfy the needs of self-expansion of existing value.”

3. What is the significance of the proportionate increase of constant to variable capital?

4. What is the law of the concentration of wealth, of its centralization? What is the limit of centralisation in a single industry? What is the limit in a given society? Are these affected by the “absolute general law of capitalist production"? What is the “absolute general law"?

5. What is the relation between accumulation and the reserve army of labor? What are the different forms of the relative surplus population?

6. Is the degradation of the worker to an appendage of a machine dependent upon whether his payment is high or low?