Reviews of Capital by Frederick Engels 1867

Review of Volume One of Capital for the Demokratisches Wochenblatt
March 1868

Written: between March 2 and 13, 1868;
First published: in the Demokratisches Wochenblatt, Nos. 12 and 13, March 21 and 28, 1868

Marx's Capital


Demokratisches Wochenblatt, No. 12, March 21, 1868

As long as there have been capitalists and workers on earth no book has appeared which is of as much importance for the workers as the one before us. The relation between capital and labour, the axis on which our entire present system of society turns, is here treated scientifically for the first time, and at that with a thoroughness and acuity such as was possible only for a German. Valuable as the writings of an Owen, Saint-Simon or Fourier are and will remain--it was reserved for a German first to reach the height from which the whole field of modern social relations can be seen clearly and in full view just as the lower mountain scenery is seen by an observer standing on the top-most peak.

Political economy up to now has taught us that labour is the source of all wealth and the measure of all values, so that two objects whose production has cost the same labour time possess the same value and must also be exchanged for each other, since on the average only equal values are exchangeable for one another. At the same time, however, it teaches that there exists a kind of stored-up labour, which it calls capital; that this capital, owing to the auxiliary sources contained in it, raises the productivity of living labour a hundred and a thousandfold, and in return claims a certain compensation which is termed profit or gain. As we all know, this occurs in reality in such a way that the profits of stored-up, dead labour become ever more massive, the capitals of the capitalists become ever more colossal, while the wages of living labour become ever smaller and the mass of the workers living solely on wages becomes ever more numerous and poverty-stricken. How is this contradiction to be solved? How can there remain a profit for the capitalist if the worker receives in compensation the full value of the labour he adds to his product? Yet this ought to be the case, since only equal values are exchanged. On the other hand, how can equal values be exchanged, how can the worker receive the full value of his product, if, as is admitted by many economists, this product is divided between him and the capitalist? Political economy up till now has been helpless in the face of this contradiction, and writes or stutters embarrassed meaningless phrases. Even the previous socialist critics of political economy have not been able to do more than to emphasise the contradiction; no one resolved it, until now at last Marx has traced the process by which this profit arises right to its birthplace and has thereby made everything clear.

In tracing the development of capital, Marx starts out from the simple, notoriously obvious fact that the capitalists increase the value of their capital through exchange: they buy commodities for their money and afterwards sell them for more money than they cost them. For example, a capitalist buys cotton for 1,000 talers and resells it for 1,100, thus "earning" 100 talers. This excess of 100 talers over the original capital Marx calls surplus-value. Where does this surplus-value come from? According to the economists' assumption, only equal values are exchanged and in the sphere of abstract theory this, of course, is correct. Hence the purchase of cotton and its resale can just as little yield surplus-value as the exchange of a silver taler for thirty silver groschen and the re-exchange of the small coins for a silver taler, a process by which one becomes neither richer nor poorer. But surplus-value can just as little arise from sellers selling commodities above their value, or purchasers buying them below their value, because each one is in turn buyer and seller and things would therefore again balance. Just as little can it arise from buyers and sellers reciprocally overreaching each other, for this would create no new or surplus-value, but only divide the existing capital differently among the capitalists. In spite of the fact that the capitalist buys the commodities at their value and sells them at their value, he gets more value out than he puts in. How does this happen?

The capitalist finds on the commodity market under present social conditions a commodity which has the peculiar property that its use is a source of new value, is a creation of new value, and this commodity is labour-power.

What is the value of labour-power? The value of every commodity is measured by the labour required for its production. Labour-power exists in the form of the living worker who requires a definite amount of means of subsistence for his existence as well as for the maintenance of his family, which ensures the continuance of labour-power also after his death. The labour-time necessary for producing these means of subsistence represents, therefore, the value of the labour-power. The capitalist pays for it weekly and purchases thereby the use of one week's labour of the worker. So far messieurs the economists will be pretty well in agreement with us as to the value of labour-power.

The capitalist now sets his worker to work. In a certain period of time the worker will have performed as much labour as was represented by his weekly wages. Supposing that the weekly wages of a worker represent three workdays, then, if the worker begins on Monday, he has by Wednesday evening replaced to the capitalist the full value of the wages paid. But does he then stop working? Not at all. The capitalist has bought his week's labour and the worker must go on working during the last three days of the week too. This surplus-labour of the worker, over and above the time necessary to replace his wages, is the source of surplus-value, of profit, of the steadily growing increase of capital.

Do not say it is an arbitrary assumption that the worker works off in three days the wages he has received, and works the remaining three days for the capitalist. Whether he takes exactly three days to replace his wages, or two or four, is to be sure quite immaterial here and hence varies according to circumstances; the main point is that the capitalist, besides the labour he pays for, also extracts labour that he does not pay for, and this is no arbitrary assumption, for the day the capitalist were to extract from the worker in the long run only as much labour as he paid him in wages, on that day he would shut down his workshop, since indeed his whole profit would come to nought.

Here we have the solution of all those contradictions. The origin of surplus-value (of which the capitalists' profit forms an important part) is now quite clear and natural. The value of the labour-power is paid for, but this value is far smaller than that which the capitalist manages to extract from the labour-power, and it is precisely the difference, the unpaid labour, that constitutes the share of the capitalist, or more accurately, of the capitalist class. For even the profit that the cotton dealer made on his cotton in the above example must consist of unpaid labour, if cotton prices did not rise. The trader must have sold [it] to a cotton manufacturer, who is able to extract a profit for himself from his product besides the 100 talers, and therefore shares with him the unpaid labour he has pocketed. In general it is this unpaid labour which maintains all the non-working members of society. The state and municipal taxes, as far as they affect the capitalist class, as also the rent of the landowners, etc., are paid from it. On it rests the whole existing social system.

It would, however, be absurd to assume that unpaid labour arose only under present conditions where production is carried on by capitalists on the one hand and wage-workers on the other. On the contrary, the oppressed class at all times has had to perform unpaid labour. During the whole long period when slavery was the prevailing form of the organisation of labour, the slaves had to perform much more labour than was returned to them in the form of means of subsistence. The same was the case under the rule of serfdom and right up to the abolition of peasant corvee labour; here in fact the difference stands out palpably between the time during which the peasant works for his own maintenance and the surplus-labour for the feudal lord, precisely because the latter is carried out separately from the former. The form has now been changed, but the substance remains and as long as "a part of society possesses the 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" (Marx, p. 202).


[Demokratisches Wochenblatt, No. 13, March 28, 1868]

In the previous article we saw that every worker employed by a capitalist performs two kinds of labour: during one part of his working-time he replaces the wages advanced to him by the capitalist, and this part of his labour Marx terms the necessary labour. But afterwards he has to go on working and during that time he produces surplus-value for the capitalist, an important part of which constitutes profit. That part of the labour is called surplus-labour.

Let its assume that the worker works three days of the week to replace his wages and three days to produce surplus-value for the capitalist. In other words, it means that, with a twelve-hour working day, he works six hours daily for his wages and six hours for the production of surplus-value. One can get only six days out of the week, and even by including Sunday only seven at the most, but one can extract six, eight, ten, twelve, fifteen or even more hours of work out of every single day. The worker sells the capitalist a working day for his day's wages. But, what is a working day? Eight hours or eighteen?

It is in the capitalist's interest to make the working day as long as possible. The longer it is, the more surplus-value it produces. The worker correctly feels that every hour of labour which he performs over and above the replacement of his wages is unjustly taken from him; he learns from bitter personal experience what it means to work excessive hours. The capitalist fights for his profit, the worker for his health, for a few hours of daily rest, to be able to engage in other human activities as well, besides working, sleeping and eating. It may be remarked in passing that it does not depend at all upon the good will of the individual capitalists whether they desire to embark on this struggle or not, since competition compels even the most philanthropic among them to join his colleagues and to fix working hours to be as long as theirs. The struggle for the fixing of the working day has lasted from the first appearance of free workers in the arena of history down to the present day. In various trades various traditional working days prevail; but in reality they are seldom observed. Only where the law fixes the working day and supervises its observance can one really say that there exists a normal working day. And up to now this is the case virtually solely in the factory districts of England. Here the ten-hour working day (ten and a half hours on five days, seven and a half hours on Saturday) has been fixed for all women and for youths of thirteen to eighteen, and since the men cannot work without them, they also come under the ten-hour working day. This law has been won by English factory workers by years of endurance, by the most persistent, stubborn struggle with the factory owners, by freedom of the press, the right of association and assembly, as well as by adroit utilisation of the divisions in the ruling class itself. It has become the palladium of the English workers, it has gradually been extended to all important branches of industry and last year to almost all trades, at least to all those employing women and children. The present work contains most exhaustive material on the history of this legislative regulation of the working day in England. The next North German Imperial Diet" will also have factory regulations to discuss and in connection therewith the regulation of factory labour. We expect that none of the deputies that have been elected by German workers will proceed to discuss this bill without previously making themselves thoroughly conversant with Marx's book. There is much to be achieved here. The divisions within the ruling classes are more favourable to the workers than they ever were in England, because universal suffrage compels the ruling classes to court the favour of the workers. Under these circumstances, four or five representatives of the proletariat are a power, if they know how to use their position, if above all they know what is at issue, which the bourgeois do not know. And for this purpose, Marx's book gives them all the material in ready form.

We will pass over a number of further excellent investigations of more theoretical interest and will pause only at the final chapter which deals with the accumulation or amassing of capital. Here it is first shown that the capitalist mode of production, i.e. that inaugurated by capitalists on the one hand and wage-workers on the other, not only continually regenerates capital for the capitalist, but at the same time also continually produces the poverty of the workers; thereby it is provided for a constant regeneration of, on one hand, capitalists who are the owners of all means of subsistence, all raw materials and instruments of labour, and on the other hand, the great mass of the workers, who are quantum of the means of subsistence which at best just suffices to keep them able-bodied and to bring up a new generation of able-bodied proletarians. But capital does not merely reproduce itself: it is continually increased and multiplied--and thereby its power over the propertyless class of workers. And just as it itself is reproduced on an ever greater scale, so the modern capitalist mode of production reproduces the class of propertyless workers also on an ever greater scale, in even greater numbers. "...Accumulation of capital reproduces the capital-relation on a progressive scale, more capitalists or larger capitalists at this pole, more wage-workers at that.... Accumulation of capital is, therefore, increase of the proletariat" (p 600). Since, however, owing to the progress of machinery, owing to improved agriculture, etc., fewer and fewer workers are necessary in order to produce the same quantity of products, since this perfecting, that is, this making the workers superfluous, is more rapid than even the growth of capital, what becomes of this ever-increasing number of workers? They form an industrial reserve army, which, when business is bad or middling, is paid below the value of its labour and is irregularly employed or is left to be cared for by public charity, but which is indispensable to the capitalist class at times when business is especially lively, as is palpably evident in England--but which under all circumstances serves to break the power of resistance of the regularly employed workers and to keep their wages down. "The greater the social wealth ... the greater is the relative surplus-population, or industrial-reserve-army. But the greater this reserve-army in proportion to the active (regularly employed) labour-army, the greater is the mass of a consolidated (permanent) surplus-population, or strata of workers, whose misery is in inverse ratio to its torment of labour. The more extensive, finally, the lazarus-layers of the working class, and the industrial reserve-army, the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation" (p. 631)

These, strictly scientifically-proved--and the official economists are taking great care not to make even an attempt at a refutation--are some of the chief laws of the modern, capitalist, social system. But does this tell the whole story? By no means. Marx sharply stresses the bad sides of capitalist production but with equal emphasis clearly proves that this social form was necessary to develop the productive forces of society to a level which will make possible an equal development worthy of human beings for all members of society. All earlier forms of society were too poor for this. Capitalist production is the first to create the wealth and the productive forces necessary for this, but at the same time it also creates, in the numerous and oppressed workers, the social class which is compelled more and more to claim the utilisation of this wealth and these productive forces for the whole of society--instead of their being utilised, as they are today, for a monopolist class.