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Studying Marx’s “Wage Labour and Capital”

Essential Difference Between Two Distribution Systems

by a workers’ group in Shanghai’s Hutung Shipyard

[This article is reprinted from Peking Review, #32, Aug. 11, 1972, pp. 6-8.]

FOR us who are workers, the old society was one of cruel exploitation and oppression. Having lived in that society and in the new, we know the difference between the distribution systems before and after liberation.

We recently have been studying Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital and relevant theses in other Marxist works. We have come to understand in theory the reactionary character of the capitalist distribution system and the superiority of the distribution system in socialist society. As a result, the essential difference between the two systems has become clear.

Two Wage Systems

Under the capitalists in the old society, we toiled and got wages. Now we work for our socialist society and also receive wages. What is the essential difference under the two social systems?

In his Wage Labour and Capital, Marx pointed out that in capitalist society, “the capitalist ... buys their [workers’] labour with money. They sell him their labour for money.” What Marx meant by workers’ labour here is workers’ labour power. As Marx put it in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, “Wages are not what they appear to be, namely, the value, or price, of labour, but only a masked form for the value, or price, of labour power.” That is to say, in the old society, the wages we got were the price of our labour power which was sold to the capitalists as a commodity. After we sold our labour power, the wealth created by our labour power for the capitalists day and night in their factories far exceeded the wages we got. The value that exceeded our wages is the surplus value which was grabbed entirely by the capitalists without any compensation. This is the secret of workers being exploited and capitalists getting rich in capitalist society.

With only a wretched ship and four pieces of old machine tools at the start, our shipyard was only a ship-repairing workshop owned by a foreign capitalist before liberation. However, within a few years, his wealth had expanded to 70-80 ships. Did his wealth drop from the sky? Every veteran worker clearly recalls that the ships he bought from abroad were repaired by the workers who toiled 12 hours a day but hardly got enough to eat. While it seemed that the wages the capitalist paid us were for the amount of work done, in essence “the money-relation conceals the unrequited labour of the wage-labourer” (Capital), conceals capital’s cruel exploitation on wage labour.

We working people have now become masters of our own country. We are no longer wage-labourers selling our labour power as a commodity. We work for the building of socialism, for the complete emancipation of the working people. Therefore, the wages we now get are no longer the value or price of our labour power, but a kind of distribution of consumer goods to the workers by the state according to the socialist principle—“From each according to his ability, to each acording to his work.” Wages under two different social systems reflect two sharply different distribution systems.

Marx pointed out: “The distribution of the means of consumption at any time is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself.” (Critique of the Gotha Programme.) The “distribution of the conditions of production” mentioned above involves the question of which class possesses the means of production, that is, the question of ownership of the means of production. The distribution system for consumer goods is determined by ownership of the means of production, the former cannot be separated from the latter. The means of production in capitalist society are in the hands of the capitalists, and workers can only sell their labour power to them. Before liberation, one of our shipyard foundry workers injured his feet when he was smelting iron. He had to ask other people to carry him every day to the workshop where, despite severe pain, he sat on the ground to toil for the capitalist. Marx made the point: “The vampire will not lose its hold on him ‘so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.’” (Capital.)

The vampire that Marx meant is capitalist ownership of the means of production and the wage-labour system of capitalism. Therefore, to attain emancipation, we the working class should thoroughly eliminate both.

Our factories are now socialist enterprises. The products they turn out belong to the entire working people and are no longer owned by the capitalists. The distribution system arising therefrom contains no exploitation. From this follows the fundamental change in the character and aim of labour. In the past, workers worked in order to make a living. “It [labour] is rather a sacrifice of his life.” (Wage Labour and Capital.) Now they work for socialist revolution and construction, for the complete emancipation of the working people. When we stand on the bow of a 10,000-ton ship being launched, watching the fluttering red flags and the waves, we think not of how much our wages are, but of how to accelerate socialist construction and do a better job in socialist revolution with our own hands as our contribution to the emancipation of mankind.

Nominal Wages and Real Wages

Members of our group said that in the old society not only was the amount of wages small, but the things they could buy were even less. It was hard to make both ends meet. Now workers’ lives continue to get better steadily. What does this show?

Marx said: “The money price of labour, nominal wages, do not coincide with real wages, that is, with the sum of commodities which is actually given in exchange for the wages. If, therefore, we speak of a rise or fall of wages, we must keep in mind not only the money price of labour, the nominal wages.” (Wage Labour and Capital.) We veteran workers have a deep understanding of this important thesis of Marx’s. In the old society, wages rose at a snail’s pace while prices skyrocketed. Workers’ wages were so low they could hardly meet the minimum needs of a family’s living. Sometimes there was a nominal increase after a strike, but a worker’s real living standard dropped because of the far greater rise in prices. Just before liberation in 1949 the price of rice in the morning would be double by night-time. Workers’ wives waited regularly at factory gates every pay day to get their hands on cash in order to immediately buy all the rice they could. Rents were high and usurers’ interest exorbitant, and taxes and levies were innumerable. “No sooner is the exploitation of the labourer by the manufacturer, so far, at an end, that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.” (Manifesto of the Communist Party.) Under such heavy exploitation, nominal wage increases from a strike could never rid the working class of its miserable plight.

Things are entirely different in today’s socialist society. Wages have gradually gone up, but, more important, real income rises continuously. In the past decade or so, wage increases have taken place six times in our shipyard, involving 13,115 people. In the meantime, prices have been stable, with a good number of commodities’ prices being cut. Gone are the days in the old society when “rice is as precious as pearls and firewood as valuable as cassia.” Veteran workers are deeply gratified with the stable prices of food and fuel, young workers don’t even know what inflation and soaring prices are.

The state also provides the workers with many collective welfare facilities. For instance, our shipyard in 1971 spent an amount equal to 36 per cent of the total wages of the workers and staff on labour protection and other welfare facilities, including free medical treatment, money given to help run dining halls and to cover transportation expenses for workers living far away, funds for workers with financial difficulties, for cultural and educational purposes and pensions. This amount is sure to rise step by step in the wake of the development of socialist revolution and construction. All this shows the superiority of China’s socialist system.

The existence of large numbers of unemployed peculiar to capitalist society has been eliminated in China. In the past, a worker’s family depended on one man who got work. Now very often several members of a worker’s family have jobs to increase the family’s total income. In capitalist countries large numbers of workers are jobless and those who have jobs are constantly threatened with unemployment and have no guarantee for their livelihood.

It is a fact that the present living standard in China is not high. This is because the situation of being “poor and blank” left over by the old society has not been completely changed. We should work hard for the long-term interest of the revolutionary cause of the proletariat and for the emancipation of the oppressed people all over the world. We workers should always bear in mind the truth that only by emancipating all mankind can the proletariat achieve its own final emancipation.

Is there anyone whose actual living standard has been lowered? Yes. They are the handful of landlords, rich peasants and reactionary capitalists. Having lost the means of production by which they exploited workers and peasants, their licentious and decadent life characteristic of exploiting classes has come to an end.

Socialist Accumulation and Capitalist Accumulation

It is commonly known that the wages the state distributes among the workers in our socialist society do not comprise all the wealth created by them. Should we divide up all the wealth that is created or get more wages? Here the question of socialist accumulation is involved.

Accumulation is the source of expanded reproduction. Every society has its accumulation. But under different social systems accumulation has entirely different characteristics. Marx said: In capitalist society, “the interests of capital and the interests of wage labour are diametrically opposed.” (Wage Labour and Capital.) Capitalist accumulation is a tool for maintaining the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, a means of maintaining the bourgeoisie’s exploitation of workers. Such accumulation is seized by exploiting the surplus value of the working class and in turn it is used to further squeeze and exploit the workers. The more capital accumulated, the heavier the exploitation of the workers. The more the capitalists line their pockets, the poorer the workers’ lives are. Before liberation when capitalists built workshops and bought more machines, their aim was to make the workers do more work for them. At that time, we saw repaired ships move out of the dock, but the strenuous efforts we workers had put in for the capitalists did not help improve our lives even a bit. Doesn’t this show that the capitalists got their hands on more and more wealth? Therefore, such increase in capital accumulation means strengthening the capitalists’ rule over the working class, strengthening the means to exploit the workers and increasing poverty for the workers.

On the other hand, socialist accumulation is for the long-term benefit of the working class and other labouring people. It is for socialist expanded reproduction, building a more powerful economic base for the dictatorship of the proletariat, the greater prosperity of our great socialist motherland, and creating more material wealth for the labouring people. This is in full accord with the fundamental interests of the working people.

The development of our shipyard speaks eloquently of this. In the days just after liberation, it had woefully inadequate workshops and equipment which could only be used for repairs and not for building ships. New workshops and equipment have been added which enable the shipyard to build 10,000-ton ships and 10,000 h.p. engines. This all stems from socialist accumulation and continual expanded reproduction. Our shipyard’s case is true of the whole shipbuilding industry in China and of various other branches of economic construction. However, although there has been swift growth of China’s shipbuilding industry, it lags far behind the needs of the rapidly developing socialist revolution and construction. To build more and better ships, we need a large amount of funds. Where should we get them? Ours is a socialist country which does not exploit its people or plunder other countries; it increases accumulation by relying on the efforts of the entire people to increase production and practise economy. As Chairman Mao has taught us: “To make China rich and strong needs several decades of intense effort, which will include, among other things, the effort to practise strict economy and combat waste, i.e., the policy of building up our country through diligence and frugality.” (On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People.) Only by going in for more economy and accumulating more can we guarantee high-speed development of socialist construction and gradually raise the people’s living standard on the basis of increased production, thereby contributing more to supporting world revolution.

There has always been a struggle between the Marxist and opportunist lines on the question of accumulation. The Marxist principle of accumulation and distribution takes into consideration the interests of the state, the collective and individual, and handles relations among the three correctly. Opportunists of every description, however, try to undermine it from the Right or the “Left.” Lassalle advocated that in socialist society the principle of “undiminished proceeds of labour” should be practised, Duhring advocated the “universal principle of justice” while Liu Shao-chi and other political swindlers spouted “distribute more” and “get more.”

While the old and new opportunists’ trickery may vary under different situations and conditions, their counter-revolutionary aim is one and the same, which is, completely divide up the national income and liquidate socialist accumulation, like “killing the hen to get the egg.” If we completely divide up socialist accumulation as they hoped, what will we rely on to build socialism and support world revolution? So it is clear what they aimed at was to undermine the socialist economy and turn our socialist country under the dictatorship of the proletariat into a capitalist country!

Marxism is revolutionary truth, the scientific theory guiding the proletariat in waging revolutionary struggles. At the beginning of his Wage Labour and Capital, Marx made the point: “We wish to be understood by the workers.” In his preface to this book, Engels wrote: “How vastly superior the uneducated workers, for whom one can easily make comprehensible the most difficult economic analyses, are to our supercilious ‘educated people’ to whom such intricate questions remain insoluble their whole life long.” What our great revolutionary teachers wrote is the greatest encouragement to us workers and shows their expectation. We are determined to act according to Chairman Mao’s teaching “Read and study seriously and have a good grasp of Marxism,” persist in studying the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin and Chairman Mao’s works, and continuously enhance our consciousness in order to make a bigger contribution to building socialism and supporting world revolution.

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