Vince Copeland Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

V. Grey

Shop Talks on Socialism

Labor Power and Productive Labor

(29 June 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. 10 No. 26, 29 June 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“Well, it’s a dirty deal,” you might say, “and a tough situation when your labor produces so much and your labor power gets paid so little. But after all, why does your labor produce so much? You couldn’t do it without the capitalists’ machinery and factories. You couldn’t do it without the inventions of Edison and other smart men. You’re just a laborer after all – even if a little bit skilled. If you sell your labor power for its full value and get a decent living wage – that’s really all you’re entitled to.”

Without modern factories and techniques we are helpless, all of us. That is true. But who made the factories? Did the capitalist, with his millions? Did even Edison, with his brains?

Ages ago the factories did not exist. And more ages before that there was no difference between labor and labor power that could be separated and exploited like it is today. And strangely enough, there were no millionaires.

At the dawn of humanity, the cave-man, or even eons later, the primitive Indian living in groups or tribes could barely produce enough from the unwilling earth even to keep alive. His labor power could not be bought and sold even if there had been someone around to buy it from him. There would have been no profit in it. For if part of the product of his labor were given to someone else, he would soon die of starvation.

But today human labor can produce thousands of times what the caveman could. For many, many centuries people have been improving their working tools, and thus increasing the productivity of labor.

No one knows who invented the wedge, the lever, the pulley, the wheel or axle. Long before writing existed, these existed. Ages before patent offices were invented, these were invented.

Yet they were tremendous advances for mankind. They made man’s labor more fruitful. Labor could produce more with these elementary tools and mechanical devices. And in the last few hundred years these tools and devices have become transformed into extremely complex machines. Inventors long dead and forgotten made axes, nails and chisels from the wedge, and wagons, waterwheels and mills from the wheel. In the last century they learned to harness steam and electricity to the machines.

The physical and mental labor of our fathers and grandfathers has produced the factories, railroads and other riches that lie around us. But generations upon generations of our remoter ancestors produced the things that made our fathers’ labor more productive too.

The tools and technique we have today, the accumulated capital of the past and the rightful heritage of all humanity, these are the things that make our labor so productive. Our brains, too – finer and more subtle instruments than our ancestors had, enable us to work more efficiently, to produce better things.

Our Heritage Turned Against Us

But still, we as laborers have only ourselves to sell – only our labor power. All that we produce – all that we labor to make – belongs to the buyers of our labor power.

Our ancestors built up such a tremendous storehouse of tools and knowledge, such a magnificent productive system, that it is impossible for each worker to own the tools that make his labor so productive.

We cannot work alone. We must work in common with hundreds of others, in order to make the kind of things and amount of things that are made today. We must work in huge factories.

Our heritage is turned against us. The capitalist, who owns the means of production – the instruments of our labor, finds us disinherited in the market place, with nothing to sell but our labor power. While our labor creates our work places and his pleasure palaces – our labor-power is rewarded with slave’s bread, masquerading under the name of a “Living Wage.”

Next Week: Surplus Value

Vince Copeland Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 23 December 2018