Marx at his Study

Study Guide for
Karl Marx’s
Wage Labour and Capital


Preparatory Reading:

Principles of Communism by Engels, November 1847
Introduction by Engels, 1891
Context, from Progress Press

Table of Contents:


Context: The Communist League, The June Revolution, Class Struggle in France.
Terms: Feudal Society, Bourgeois Society, Utopia, Proletariat, Bourgeoisie.

Questions for discussion:
On what basis is Marx referring to social reforms being a “Utopia”

What are wages?

Terms: Wages, Wage Labour, Labour Power, Commodity, Price, Labour.

Questions for discussion:
1. What is the difference between “Labour” and “Labour Power”?
2. Describe some circumstances from your personal experiences where on the one hand, labour is purchased, and on the other labour-power is purchased. Can you find examples where in both cases the seller is a manual worker and the buyer is a capitalist?

By what is the price of a commodity determined?

Terms: Market, Class, Labour Theory of Value.

Questions for discussion:
1. In what sense does Marx deny that prices are determined by the balance of supply and demand?
2. What will cause a commodity in short supply to fall in price?
3. What factors discussed in this chapter may cause wages to fall?

By what are wages determined?

Terms: Necessary Labour Time.

Questions for discussion:
1. What additional factors discussed in this chapter do you see which will cause wages to be higher or lower for one or another trade or vary over the years?
2. What do you think the effect of introducing free public education would have on wages?
3. Discuss other factors: increased immigration, cheap public housing, introduction of new technology, anti-union laws, ... (no simple answers!)

The nature and growth of capital

Terms: Capital, Fetishism, Relations of Production, Production and Consumption, Distribution and Exchange, Means of Production, Productive Forces, Exchange-value.

Questions for discussion:
1. What does Marx mean when he introduces this point about a Negro being a slave? What is he saying about Capital?
2. What does Marx mean by saying “Capital is a social relation”?
3. In today's capitalist society, in what circumstances are useful, valuable things not capital?
4. In what sense do we see the dead dominating the living in capitalist society?

Relation of wage-labor to capital

Terms: Goods and Services, Working Day, Inflation, Producitve and Unproductive Labour.

Questions for discussion:
1. Can we think of even more factors governing the rise and fall of real wages?
2. What does “standard of living” mean? Has it increased over the past 100 years in your country (or not)? Why?
3. What is the effect on profits of a situation where people work long hours every day of the week (other things being equal)? And on the other hand, of people only having a few hours work a week?

The general law that determines the rise and fall of wages and profit

Terms: Surplus Value, Social Wage, Taxation, Taylorism.

Questions for discussion:
1. Marx says that the gap between rich and poor was getting wider in his day. Is this true today? Has it always been true throughout the past hundred years in your country? And what about differences within the working class? Are these getting bigger or smaller?
2. Where does profit come from? If commodities are paid for at their value, how can a buyer or seller consistently make a profit and get rich? – Does your answer cover how bankers, landlords, stock-brokers and so on get rich?

The interests of capital and wage-labor are diametrically opposed

Terms: Money, Business Cycle, Falling Rate of Profit, Mechanisation and Automation.

Questions for discussion:
1. Discuss an example you know about of a new technique of production being introduced and the effects this had on prices, wages, etc.
2. Discuss the contrast between “labour intensive” and “capital intensive” industries. What parts of the economy are becoming more capital intensive, and which are not?

Effect of capitalist competition on the capitalist, middle and working class

Terms: Contract Labour, Middle Class, Concentration of Capital, petit-bourgeoisie, Crisis of Captialism. Trade Union.

Questions for discussion:
1. Discuss the prospects for wages in your country at the moment and what tactics could be used to improve wages.
2. What is your answer to someone who says that an increase in wages will only cause inflation or cause capital to be withdrawn from the country.
3. Why is the fight for better wages anything to do with the fight for socialism? What would you say to somone who said that fighting for higher wages is just being greedy like the capitalists?
4. Many workers are not paid wages, but work on contracts, or on piece-work. How does this effect what Marx has been saying about the value of Labour Power, and so on.?

Further Reading:

Wages, Marx 1847
The Production of Absolute Surplus Value and The Production of Relative Surplus Value, Engels 1868

Andy Blunden, 2002