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V. Grey

Shop Talks on Socialism

Labor and Labor Power

(15 June 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 24, 15 June 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Labor power is the capacity to work. It is, in the long run, the worker himself. But labor is the living action of the worker. It is value-creating action.

It was the genius of Karl Marx that first discovered and clearly described this difference between labor and labor-power. At first glance, the difference seems slight. It might be some kind of hair-splitting. But the difference is really of great importance. And it is because of this difference that capitalism can exist at all.

It is the second great distinction that the young student of Marxist economics has to master. The first was the distinction between use-value and value. These seemed a little bit alike, but we saw how these two qualities were very different.

It may be difficult to grasp the difference between labor and labor-power at first. But once we do grasp it we can understand what capitalist exploitation is.

It is because the laborer is able to produce more than enough for his own and his family’s upkeep, that profits can exist. If the product of his labor was exactly equal to the products that he and his family consumed in daily life, there would be no capital, and no capitalism.

Labor power can remain almost unchanged from one year to the next. A man’s muscle and brain don’t change much in a year. And his food, clothing and family requirements are about the same. But his labor and what it produces can change drastically in that same year.

In ship building, for example, it used to be a year- round proposition to build an ocean going ship – especially naval craft. But before the war was over, these vessels were turned out in a matter of days. Labor was applied in different ways, under new circumstances – welding huge pre-fabricated sections together with assembly line technique. The labor, however, was still powered with the same spinach and beef as when the iron worker, fitter, burner and welder used to put each ship-plate in place in the ancient days of 1940.

Labor Power Must Be Sustained

A man working piece-work may turn out a thousand articles a day, and a maintenance man may read comic books for hours at a time. The labor they perform is very different. But their labor power is about the same. They eat about the same quantity of groceries – they wear out the same amount of clothing, and they both have a wife and family to provide for.

During the war a man labored six days for the boss to get the money to keep his labor power replenished for seven days. But now he only labors five days. And he still must live for seven. That is why he demanded a higher price for his labor power and struck for the 18½ cent raise.

Finally, a man who is laid off altogether, is doing no labor whatsoever for the boss. But his labor power, like a millstone around his neck, is an unsold commodity that still requires spinach and beef, even in idleness. In an agony of hunger and worry for his family, he is willing to sell it cheaper and cut out the beef. But once having sold it at a cut rate, he is still compelled to produce for his boss at a faster rate of labor than ever.

The capitalists are always trying to push down the price of labor power. They are trying to make the laborer get along on less. They are trying to reduce his standard of living. That is why the working people are organized in unions – in order to resist this pressure – and raise the price of their labor power.

And while the capitalists try to reduce the value of labor power, they move heaven and earth to increase the values that its labor produces – in other words, they whip more labor out of the labor-power they have bought.

Having grasped the difference between labor and labor power, we have accomplished two big things. We have stripped bare the secret of capitalist exploitation. And we have discovered the economic roots of the class struggle.

(Next week: The Value of Labor Power)

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Last updated: 23 December 2018