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V. Grey

Shop Talks on Socialism

Surplus Value

(6 July 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 27, 6 July 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

We have seen the capitalist makes nothing out of idle factories or rusting machinery. New wealth, including machinery itself can only be created by labor. And it is a portion of this newly created wealth that the capitalist keeps for himself. It is legal and just that he should do this under a capitalist system with capitalist laws.

He pays dollar for dollar for everything he gets. He buys according to the labor worked up in things. He buys labor power in the same manner. Then he sets his laborers to work. And he sells the things workers produce dollar for dollar according to the total labor worked up in them. He has paid the workers the value of their labor power, or enough for them to live on. But of course not the value of what they have produced.

The source of all capitalist wealth – rent, interest, dividends – “profit” – is the surplus the workers produce over and above what they get paid – the difference between the wages and the product. This is called by Karl Marx “surplus value.”

The appropriation by rulers of surplus product was not invented by capitalism.

Capitalism, in fact, claims that there is no such thing as surplus value nowadays. Assuredly the ancient slaves produced surplus value, say the capitalists’ professors. “And of course the serfs of the middle ages did.” Each of these serfs worked about four days on his own miserable land and two days on his lord’s. He had to perform unpaid labor and so create surplus value. The capitalist professors acknowledge that.

“But today” they exclaim – “Why today the worker is paid wages for every day and every hour in the day. He works for himself, not for the capitalist!”

If these wise gentlemen saw thirty brand new cars an hour whiz down the assembly line as they felt their muscles get sore, they might think otherwise. But it is quite true that we work for so much an hour in the plant. The hourly wage conceals the systematic robbery of the workers by the capitalist and helps to give it legal justification.

It is very obvious that the feudal serf was performing unpaid labor a couple days a week. There he was working on the lord’s estate without wages – without a return of any kind.

The wages system seems to give a return for all work performed. We look back upon the feudal serf system and think the serfs were an awful gullible bunch of fools. It’s so clear to ‘us now that they were just making the lords rich all the time, working on their land for nothing, as they did. The church taught the people that the lord was placed there above them by God. And the people believed it.

Company Is Our “Lord”

But it’s hard to see the woods for the trees today. We are working part of every day and part of every hour and minute for nothing, regardless of the testimony of time- cards and professors. We are working part of the time “for ourselves” and part of the time for the company. Suppose we are producing new value at the rate of two dollars an hour, and get paid just one dollar an hour – then we are working just half the time for ourselves and half for our “lord” – the company.

If you stop to think of the thousands of workers that work for each big company, and multiply their number by a dollar an hour, you have an idea why these companies get so much surplus value that they make the old lords and dukes look very poor indeed.

All the mansions, limousines and pleasure yachts in the world are heaps of surplus value. The swank clubs and services for the rich have been made by the surplus labor of the poor. The tyrants of old had slaves and serfs, but were not able with whip, lash, or torture wheels to extract the surplus labor that Capital automatically commands from “free labor” today.

All the railroads, steamships, skyscrapers, great bridges, highways – all the man-made wonders of the world are monuments of surplus value. They put to shame the palaces of old. They outshine the pyramids. Man is able to produce infinitely more than his ancestors. And he needs a much smaller percentage of his day’s product to feed and clothe himself. Hence these glories.

Capital itself is that part of the surplus value which is put back into production. It is the surplus labor of the past that is turned into new machinery to exploit new laborers. The harder the workers labor, the more they produce, the more surplus they produce – then the more Capital they produce. Capital is dead labor that lives “vampire-like on living labor.” And under capitalism the completed surplus labor – the dead labor – returns to haunt the living laborer in the form of a machine that makes him work faster, produce more surplus for the boss while he produces himself an early grave.

Under Capitalism and capitalist law this is just the way things should be. “To them that hath shall be given.” Under Capitalism, the capitalists have every right to all their riches. They have every right to own the means of production even though the whole world should starve. For the surplus product belongs to the capitalist.

The working class can only take this surplus by rooting out capitalism itself, by changing the laws of society and establishing socialism.

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