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The New International, October 1941


W. Kent

Discussion Article:

What Is Capitalism?

Concerning Some Fundamentals of Marxism


From The New International, Vol. VII No. 9, October 1941, pp. 245–7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


IN AN ARTICLE in the August issue of The New International I charged J.R. Johnson, in an attempt to characterize Stalinist Russia as a capitalist state, with broadening the definition of capitalism to such an extent as to make it possible to include every exploiting society and cause all specific distinctions to disappear. Johnson answered in the September issue with fuller explanations, which prove very interesting but fail to contradict the accuracy of my charge. Since we are dealing with a clarification of some concepts of Marxist anslysis of great importance today, I would like to return in greater detail to the question which was previously only touched upon.

I am in agreement with Johnson that we are dealing with a class society in Stalinist Russia; that the means of production there adhere to the bureaucracy; that the latter is the ruling class; and that they exploit the workers and appropriate their surplus product. There is only one debatable question that divides us, but a very important one: is it capitalist exploitation or a new, previously non-existent form of class rule?

Johnson must admit that the social order in Russia is obviously different than the classical capitalism described by Marx: capitalist competition no longer exists upon the internal market; this market does not regulate the prices; the law of the equalization of the rate of profit does not govern the distribution of the means of production among the various branches of production. “The state decides what is to be done.” That is the point – admits Johnson.

Like all supporters of the theory that every form of exploitation today must be capitalism, Johnson eases his task with the reference that capitalism – as do all other things in the world – develops and that there never was a “pure” capitalism. That is true, but it does not decide our question. It is known that things develop according to dialectical laws and sometimes the changed quantity transforms itself into a new quality.

Man developed out of the ape and the pithecantropus erectus or some other animal ancestor of ours was no longer a “pure” ape but rather an ape with several so-called human characteristics. On the other hand, the first human beings (and only the first) kept many of the characteristics of the ape. Yet no intelligent person would maintain that no qualitative difference exists between the breed of humans and the breed of apes.

The Nature of a “Pure” Society

Not only “pure” capitalism, but also “pure” feudalism never existed. The roots of capitalism developed in feudal society for hundreds of years. On the other hand, capitalism in its first decades, yes, in some countries even at the beginning of the twentieth century, was still full of feudal hangovers. Despite this, capitalism is not a “very, very impure” feudalism, but rather a new type of society.

Or, to take an example closer to home: We presume that Johnson agrees that a workers’ state existed in Russia in the years just following 1917. Still it was not a “pure” workers’ state but, as Lenin already in 1920 so strikingly stated, a workers’ state with bureaucratic degeneration. Now a Stalinist or Cannonite could argue: since a “pure” workers’ state, according to Lenin, never really existed, it follows that the present Russian state is a workers’ state, even if a very, very impure one. Johnson would presumably reject this “it follows” just as I would. Such a “proof” proves nothing but the ignorance of its authors.

To be completely familiar with the social facts and tendencies and be able to solve the question of whether we are dealing with a capitalist or non-capitalist society, we must first answer the following: What is the decisive characteristic that distinguishes the various types of class societies?

The exploitation of class by class existed in all class societies. In what manner does capitalist exploitation distinguish itself from all other forms of exploitation? The oppression of the propertyless by the owners of the means of production is a characteristic common to all exploitative societies. The specific method of exploitation, however, differs. The secret of every method of class rule is concealed in the specific relations in which the rulers of the means of production stand toward the propertyless.

Exploitation and the Social Order

The decisive answer is not to be found, as Johnson thinks, in whether the means of production exist in their preponderance in land, “which was always there,” or in factories and machines which had to be created through human effort. Even Johnson must admit that slavery and feudalism constituted two different types of exploitation, even if in his concept “the dominating factor of production was the land” in each case. What distinguished one from another was a qualitatively different relationship of the exploiters to the exploited. It is likewise possible in a society in which the “dominant factor of production” consists of factories, machines and raw materials to have various methods of exploitation, various exploitative systems and, as we have learned from bitter experience, they do exist.

It is a well established truth in Marxism that the essence of the definition of capital does not concern itself with material things – factories, machines, etc. – but rather in the relations between persons, in relations between classes. The same factory may or may not be capital, depending on whether the work performed in it is subject to the law of surplus value or some other social law or perhaps is not at all subject to exploitation.

Johnson views the question simply: “Capital is accumulated labor.”

No, sir. One could easily answer him with the well-known quotation from Marx’s Wage Labor and Capital: a Negro is a Negro but only under specific social conditions is he a slave; a machine to spin cotton is a machine to spin cotton but only under specific social conditions does it become capital. Thus also is accumulated labor merely accumulated labor, and only under specific social conditions does it become capital. One cannot replace the Marxist definition of capital with a bon mot without at the same time falling back into the most vulgar nonsense of the vulgar bourgeois political economists. Accumulated labor is the means of production that have been produced. However, it becomes capital only under specific social conditions.

Which, then, are these “specific social conditions” which make the means of production into capital and a social order into capitalism? I presented them in my first article with the words of Marx – without additional comment – from the place in Vol. 1 of Capital where the fundamental prerequisites for the existence of capitalism are stated. Unfortunately, Johnson, who otherwise tosses about quotations from Marx with abandon, however little they pertain to the subject, chose to remain silent about this quotation. But, unfortunately, I cannot avoid taking issue with him exactly on this issue.

The Law of Value, Surplus Value and the Free Laborer

The central axis of Marx’s analysis of capitalism is the law of value and surplus value. These are the foundations upon which the entire system of Marxist political economy rests. Take them away and nothing remains of either Capital as a book or capital as a Marxist concept.

[Like all natural and social laws, it is modified in practice by secondary influences. As the fall of bodies in nature does not exactly follow the laws of Newton, but rather, for example, are held up through air resistance, thus the law of value does not govern capitalist society unconditionally but rather through many modifications and intermediaries; due to the equalization of the rate of profit, the price of production varies from the value, market prices are modified by the law of supply and demand, etc. Despite these modifications, the law of value operates decisively and determines the fundamental tendencies of economic development as long as capitalism exists exactly as the law of gravity determines the mechanical movement of bodies despite all disturbing influences. Between these modifications and the annulment of the law there is a decided difference. Where the fundamental pre-conditions for the law of value cease to operate, capitalist society also ceases to operate and we must then, as Johnson correctly says, write a new political economy.]

The law of value can only hold for a social order in which producers, independent of one another, produce their products without a plan based on the whole of society as commodities for the market. That is why Capital begins with the statement: “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents’ itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodies,’ its unit being a single commodity.”

The law of value can only govern relations between exploiters and exploited where human labor power, as a commodity belonging to its possessor, can appear on the market and (considering society as a whole) sell for its value.

To be able to sell it, however, the worker must possess it and be free to dispose of it. To be obliged to sell it, he must be propertyless, i.e., without any commodities to sell other than his labor power. In a society in which the law of value and no other law governs the fundamental relations between the main classes, the worker must be free in the double sense used by Marx: first, personally free and master over his sole commodity, labor power; second, “free” from all means of production, therefore propertyless. If both of these conditions are not met there can be capitalism in the Marxist sense. [1] It is not capitalism if the direct producers, the workers, control and use the means of production, either individually as independent handicraftsmen or peasants in separate commodity production, or cooperatively as members of a socialist society. But it is also not capitalism when the workers do not own their labor power, cannot govern its disposition and cannot sell it on the market, because this labor power belongs from the outset to a slaveowner, a feudal lord or – a totalitarian state.

Marx was very serious in establishing this condition for capitalism. He insisted that the worker is a modern proletarian only when he sells his labor power piecemeal, from week to week and month to month. Were he to sell it once and for all, for his life span, he would not longer be a proletarian but a slave. The view that capitalism existed in antiquity “only” that it lacked free workers was called nonsense by Marx. The Mexican peons, who, even if formally free, are dependent upon their lord as a result of accumulated advance payments and are forced again and again to sell their labor to him are considered by Marx not as proletarians but as slaves or serfs. Johnson could have read that in the quotation I used or directly in Capital.

He can also find it in the quotation which he himself used from Engels:

“The only difference, as compared with the old outspoken slavery, is this, that the worker of today seems to be free because he is not sold once and for all, but piecemeal, by the day, the week, the year, and because no one owner sells him to another, but he is forced to sell himself ...”

The Proletarian Is a Product of Capitalism

Yes, that is the difference. It is important enough. It distinguishes the capitalist method of exploitation from all other methods of exploitation and in this case from slavery. It makes possible the functioning of the law of surplus value. It is the differentia specifica which distinguishes capitalism from all other systems of exploitation.

If Engels said on this occasion that the modern proletarian is “the slave of no particular person but of the whole property-owning class” and when I similarly characterize the condition of the worker in the bureaucratic collectivist economy, we both use the same words in different senses. Engels uses them in reference to capitalism metaphorically and I use them in reference to bureaucratic collectivism literally.

The proletarian in capitalist society is a slave (“wage-slave”) in the sense that while he can govern the disposition of his labor power, he must in the end sell it to some member of the capitalist class, in which case the wage and working conditions are in the end determined by the law of value. But the worker in the totalitarian bureaucratic state cannot ever choose an exploiter from the member of the capitalist class and bargain over the price, conditions or uses of his labor power. He is forced to accept without protest any work for any price in accordance with the orders of an exploiting class tightly organized in a totalitarian state.

In comparison with the real freedom and equality of a socialist society, this difference between two methods of exploitation may seem secondary and insignificant. However, when one makes the comparison between the two methods of class rule the difference is an essential one. Every worker knows that he is exploited and enslaved under capitalism, that the “freedom” of the worker in the double sense used by Marx signifies no real freedom. If Johnson wanted to teach us this he wasted his ink for nothing. But every worker also knows the difference between capitalist exploitation and the forced labor of a concentration camp, even if the concentration camp encompasses the whole of society.

The General and the Specific Characteristics

Now Johnson can maintain (and he does) that in the end the slaves of the totalitarian state must also be fed, so that they do not die out, and that in this manner the cost of the reproduction of the labor power is paid to them, in which case, according to Johnson, the law of value and surplus begins to function again through the back door. However, the slaves of antiquity also had to maintain themselves and reproduce. They received, taking society as a whole, a minimum for a bare existence in order to reproduce their labor power. This circumstance, in which the exploited somehow receive a minimum for existence and the exploiters appropriate the surplus product, is a general characteristic of every class society, and not a specific characteristic of capitalism. The specific distinction of capitalism is that the exploitation takes the form of the sale of labor power and the surplus product the form of surplus value.

[It is almost unnecessary to remark that here and elsewhere in this article I use the term “class society” to mean a society in which an exploiting class rules and therefore does not refer to the transitory rule of the working class for the purpose of introducing the socialist society.]

Finally, let us not forget that the value of labor power, as Marx said, in contradistinction to other commodities, contains an historical and moral element, namely, dependent upon the niveau and customs and living standards which the working class has created in this or that country. [2] In order to realize this “historical” value, it is necessary for the workers to have their (qualified) freedom and, even, the right of organization. Totalitarian enslavement is, therefore, the chosen method of lowering the standard of living of the workers considered in the context of this historical value.

Marx defined, as does Johnson, the modern proletariat as a class that “possesses nothing but it labor power.” My point is that the working class in the totalitarian bureaucratic system does not even possess its labor power. This labor power belongs from the outset to the exploiting state. The worker does not dispose of it at all in the decisive measure as under capitalism. The ruling class disposes of it as unconditionally as over the “dead” means of production. Johnson’s view that “the workers remain proletarians” does not hold. The worker in the totalitarian bureaucratic regime is not metaphorically but literally a slave of the ruling class. It is “outspoken slavery” to use the words of old Engels.

I will now submit to the reader whether it is an essential difference.


1. For the conversion of his money into capital, therefore, the owner of money must meet in the market with the free laborer, free in the doable sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labor power as his own commodity, and that on the other band he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realization of his labor power. (Marx’s Capital, pages 187–188, Charles H. Kerr Edition.)

2. If the owner of labor power works today, tomorrow he must again be able to repeat the same process in the same conditions as regards health and strength. His means of subsistence mast therefore be sufficient to maintain him In bis normal state as a laboring individual. His natural wants, such as food, clothing, fuel and housing, vary according to the climatic and other physical conditions of his country. On the other hand, the number and extent of his so-called necessary wants, as also the modes of satisfying them, are themselves the product of historical development and depend therefore to a great extent on the degree of civilization of a country, more particularly on the conditions under which, and consequently on the habits and degree of comfort in which, the class of free laborers has been formed. In contradistinction therefore to the case of other commodities, there enters into the determination of the value of labor power a historical and moral element. (Marx’s Capital, Vol. I, page 190, Charles H. Kerr Edition)

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