Karl Marx's Capital, abridged by Otto Ruhle


A critique of political economy

By Karl Marx

An abridgement by Otto Ruhle


The class struggle on the field of ideas conditions the class struggle as a whole. Bourgeois ideas help the bourgeoisie keep control of the working class.

In Capital Karl Marx subjected capitalism to rigorous scientific analysis and cut the ground from under the key ideas on which the vast and labyrinthe edifices of bourgeois self-justification and self-exoneration have been erected.Marx thus laid the scientific foundations of an all-round, conscious working class challenge to capitalism.

This abridgement of Volume 1 of Capital is by Otto Rühle, in collaboration with Leon Trotsky. The fundamentals of Marx's analysis are here presented in Marx's own words, stripped of outdated examples and contemporary polemics.




Part 5: The Production of Absolute and of Relative Surplus-Value

Chapter Fourteen: Absolute and Relative Surplus-Value

As the co-operative character of the labour-process becomes more and more marked, so, as a necessary consequence, does our notion of productive labour, and of its agent the productive labourer, become extended. In order to labour productively, it is no longer necessary for you to do manual work yourself; enough, if you are an organ of the collective labourer, and perform one of its subordinate functions. In another sense, however, our notion of productive labour becomes narrowed. That labourer alone is productive, who produces surplus-value for the capitalist, and thus works for the self-expansion of capital. Hence the notion of a productive labourer implies not merely a relation between work and useful effect, between labourer and product of labour, but also a specific, social relation of production, a relation that has sprung up historically and stamps the labourer as the direct means of creating surplus-value. In the course of this development, the formal subjection is replaced by the real subjection of labour to capital.

From one standpoint, any distinction between absolute and relative surplus-value appears illusory. Relative surplus-value is absolute, since it compels the absolute prolongation of the working day beyond the labour time necessary to the existence of the labourer himself. Absolute surplus-value is relative, since it makes necessary such a development of the productiveness of labour, as will allow of the necessary labour-time being confined to a portion of the working day. But if we keep in mind the behaviour of surplus-value, this appearance of identity vanishes. Once the capitalist mode of production is established and becomes general, the difference between absolute and relative surplus-value makes itself felt.

Assuming that labour-power is paid for at its value, we are confronted by this alternative: given the productiveness of labour and its normal intensity, the rate of surplus-value can be raised only by the actual prolongation of the working day; on the other hand, given the length of the working day, that rise can be effected only by a change in the relative magnitudes of the components of the working day, viz., necessary labour and surplus-labour; a change, which, if the wages are not to fall below the value of labour-power, presupposes a change either in the productiveness or in the intensity of the labour.

Thus, not only does the historically developed social productiveness of labour, but also its natural productiveness, appear to be productiveness of the capital with which that labour is incorporated. Favourable natural conditions alone gave us only the possibility, never the reality, of surplus-labour, nor, consequently, of surplus-value and a surplus-product. The result of difference in the natural conditions of labour is this, that the same quantity of labour satisfies, in different countries, a different mass of requirements, consequently, that under circumstances in other respects analogous, the necessary labour-time is different. These conditions affect surplus-labour only as natural limits, i.e., by fixing the points at which labour for others can begin. In proportion as industry advances, these natural limits recede.

Chapter Fifteen Changes of Magnitude in the Price of Labour-Power and in Surplus-Value

On the assumptions (1) that commodities are sold at their value; and (2) that the price of labour-power rises occasionally above its value, but never sinks below it, we have seen that the relative magnitudes of surplus-value and of price of labour-power are determined by three circumstances: (1) the length of the working day, or the extensive magnitude of labour; (2) the normal intensity of labour, its intensive magnitude, whereby a given quantity of labour is expended in a given time; and (3) the productiveness of labour. Very different combinations are clearly possible.

The chief combinations are:

  1. Length of the working day and intensity of labour constant. Productiveness of labour variable.
  2. Working day constant. Productiveness of labour constant. Intensity of labour variable.
  3. Productiveness and intensity of labour constant. Length of the working day variable.
  4. Simultaneous variations in the duration, productiveness, and intensity of labour.


Chapter Sixteen: Various Formulae for the Rate of Surplus-Value

The rate of surplus-value is represented by the following formulae:

  1. Surplus-value/Variable Capital (s/v) = Surplus-value/Value of labour-power = Surplus-labour/Necessary labour

    The first two of these formulae represent, as a ratio of values, that which, in the third, is represented as a ratio of the times during which those values are produced. These formulae, supplementary the one to the other, are rigorously definite and correct. In classical political economy we meet with the following derivative formulae:

  2. Surplus-labour/Working day = Surplus-value/Value of the Product = Surplus-product/Total Product

    One and the same ratio is here expressed as a ratio of labour-times, of the values in which those labour-times are embodied, and of the products in which those values exist.

    In all of these formulae (II), the actual degree of exploitation of labour, or the rate of surplus-value, is falsely expressed. Let the working day be 12 hours. Then, making the same assumptions of former instances, the real degree of exploitation of labour will be represented in the following proportions: 6 hours surplus labour/6 hours necessary labour = Surplus-value of 3sh/ Variable Capital of 3 sh = 100%

    From formulae II we get very differently, 6 hours surplus-labour/Working day of 12 hours = Surplus-value of 3 sh/Value created of 6 sh = 50%

    These derivative formulae express, in reality, only the proportion in which the working day, or the value produced by it, is divided between capitalist and labourer. If they are to be treated as direct expressions of the degree of self-expansion of capital, the following erroneous law would hold good: Surplus-labour or surplus-value can never reach 100%. Since the surplus labour is only an aliquot part of the working day, or since surplus-value is only an aliquot part of the value created, the surplus-labour must necessarily be always less than the working day, or the surplus-value always less than the total value created. The ratio Suplus labour/Working day or Surplus Value/Value created can therefore never reach the limit of 100/100 still less rise to 100 + x/100. But not so the rate of surplus-value, the real degree of exploitation of labour. There is a third formula; it is:

  3. Surplus-value/Value of labour power = Surplus-labour/Necessary labour = Unpaid labour/Paid labour.

    It is no longer possible to be misled, by the formula Unpaid labour/Paid labour, into concluding, that the capitalist pays for labour and not for labour-power. The capitalist pays the value of the labour-power, and receives in exchange the disposal of the living labour-power itself. Thus the capitalist receives in return for the price a product of the same price. During the period of surplus labour, the usufruct of the labour-power creates a value for the capitalist. This expenditure of labour-power comes to him gratis. In this sense it is that surplus labour can be called unpaid labour.

    Capital, therefore, is not only, as Adam Smith says, the command over labour. It is essentially the command over unpaid labour. All surplus-value, whatever particular form (profit, interest, or rent), it may subsequently crystallise into, is in substance the materialisation of unpaid labour. The secret of the self-expansion of capital resolves itself into having the disposal of a definite quantity of other people's unpaid labour.

Part 6: Wages

Chapter Seventeen: The Transformation of the Value (and respectively the Price) of Labour-Power into Wages

On the surface of bourgeois society the wage of the labourer appears as the price of labour, a certain quantity of money that is paid for a certain quantity of labour. That which comes directly face to face with the possessor of money on the market, is in fact not labour, but the labourer. What the latter sells is his labour power. As soon as his labour actually begins, it has already ceased to belong to him; it can therefore no longer be sold by him. Labour is the substance, and the immanent measure of value, but has itself no value.

The wage-form extinguishes every trace of the division of the working day into necessary labour and surplus-labour, into paid and unpaid labour. All labour appears as paid labour.

In slave-labour, even that part of the working day in which the slave is only replacing the value of his own means of existence, in which, therefore, in fact, he works for himself alone, appears as labour for his master. All the slave's labour appears as unpaid labour. In wage-labour, on the contrary, even surplus-labour, or unpaid labour, appears as paid.

Let us put ourselves in the place of the labourer who receives for 12 hours' labour, say the value produced by 6 hours' labour, say 3s. For him, in fact, his I z hours' labour is the means of buying the 3s. The value of his labour-power may vary, with the value of his usual means of subsistence, from 3 to 4 shillings, or from 3 to 2 shillings; or, if the value of his labour-power remains constant, its price may, in consequence of changing relations of demand and supply rise to 4s. or fall to 2s. He always gives 12 hours of labour. Every change in the amount of the equivalent that he receives appears to him necessarily as a change in the value or price of his 12 hours' work.

Let us consider, on the other hand, the capitalist. He wishes to receive as much labour as possible for as little money as possible. Practically, therefore, the only thing that interests him is the difference between the price of labour-power and the value which its function creates. But, then, he tries to buy all commodities as cheaply as possible, and always accounts for his profit by simple cheating, by buying under, and selling over the value. Hence, he never comes to see that, if such a thing as the value of labour really existed and he really paid this value, no capital would exist, his money would not be turned into capital.

Chapter Eighteen: Time-Wages

The sale of labour-power takes place for a definite period of time. The converted form under which the daily, weekly, &c., value of labour-power presents itself, is hence that of time-wages, therefore day-wages, &c.

The sum of money which the labourer receives for his daily or weekly labour, forms the amount of his nominal wages, or of his wages estimated in value. But it is clear that according to the length of the working day, that, is, according to the amount of actual labour daily supplied, the same daily or weekly wage may represent very different prices of labour. We must, therefore, in considering time-wages, again distinguish between the sum total of the daily or weekly wages, &c., and the price of labour. How then to find this price, i.e., the money-value of a given quantity of labour?

The average price of labour is found, when the average daily value of the labour-power is divided by the average number of hours in the working day. The price of the working hour thus found serves as the unit measure for the price of labour.

The daily and weekly wages, &c., may remain the same, although the price of labour falls constantly. On the contrary, the daily or weekly wages may rise, although the price of labour remains constant or even falls. As a general law it follows that, given the amount of daily, weekly labour, &c., the daily or weekly wages depend on the price of labour, which itself varies either with the value of labour-power, or with the difference between its price and its value. Given, on the other hand, the price of labour, the daily or weekly wages depend on the quantity of the daily or weekly labour.

If the hour's wage is fixed so that the capitalist does not bind himself to pay a day's or a week's wage, but only to pay wages for the hours during which he chooses to employ the labourer, he can employ him for a shorter time than that which is originally the basis of the calculation of the hour-wage, of the unit-measure of the price of labour.

He can now wring from the labourer a certain quantity of surplus-labour without allowing him the labour time necessary for his own subsistence. He can annihilate all regularity of employment, and according to his own convenience, caprice, and the interest of the moment, make the most enormous over-work alternate with relative or absolute cessation of work. He can, under the pretence of paying "the normal price of labour," abnormally lengthen the working day without any corresponding compensation to the labourer.

With an increasing daily or weekly wage the price of labour may remain nominally constant, and yet may fall below its normal level. This occurs every time that, the price of labour (reckoned per working hour) remaining constant, the working day is prolonged beyond its customary length. It is a fact generally known that, the longer the working days, in any branch of industry, the lower are the wages. The same circumstances which allow the capitalist in the long run to prolong the working day, also allow him first, and compel him finally, nominally to lower the price of labour until the total price of the increased number of hours is lowered, and, therefore, the daily or weekly wage.

This command over abnormal quantities of unpaid labour, i.e., quantities in excess of the average social amount, becomes a source of competition amongst the capitalists themselves. A part of the price of the commodity consists of the price of labour.

Chapter Nineteen: Piece-Wages

Wages by the piece are nothing else than a converted form of wages by time. In time-wages the labour is measured by its immediate duration, in piece-wages by the quantity of products in which the labour has embodied itself during a given time. It is not, therefore, a question of measuring the value of the piece by the working time incorporated in it, but on the contrary of measuring the working time the labourer has expended, by the number of pieces he has produced.

Piece-wages furnish to the capitalist an exact measure for the intensity of labour. Only the working time which is embodied in a quantum of commodities determined beforehand and experimentally fixed counts as socially necessary working time, and is paid as such. The quality of the labour is here controlled by the work itself, which must be of average perfection if the piece price is to be paid in full. Piece-wages become, from this point of view, the most fruitful source of reductions of wages and capitalistic cheating.

Since the quality and intensity of the work are here controlled by the form of wage itself, superintendence of labour becomes in great part superfluous. Piece wages therefore lay the foundation of the modern "domestic labour,', as well as of a hierarchically organised system of exploitation and oppression. The latter has two fundamental forms: the interposition of parasites between the capitalist and the wage-labourer, and the "sub-letting of labour."

The exploitation of the labourer by capital is here effected through the exploitation of the labourer by the labourer.

In time-wages, with few exceptions, the same wage holds for the same kind of work, whilst in piece-wages, though the price of the working time is measured by a certain quantity of product, the day's or week's wage will vary with the individual differences of the labourers, of whom one supplies in a given time the minimum of product only, another the average, a third more than the average. With regard to actual receipts there is, therefore, great variety according to the different skill, strength, energy, staying-power, etc., of the individual labourers.

Of course this does not alter the general relations between capital and wage-labour. First, the individual differences balance one another in the workshop as a whole, which thus supplies in a given working-time the average product, and the total wages paid will be the average wages of that particular branch of industry. Second, the proportion between wages and surplus value remains unaltered, since the mass of surplus-labour supplied by each particular labourer corresponds with the wage received by him. But the wider scope that piece-wage gives to individuality tends to develop on the one hand that individuality, and with it the sense of liberty, independence, and self-control of the labourers, on the other, their competition one with another. Piece-work has, therefore, a tendency, while raising individual wages above the average, to lower this average itself.

Piece-wage is the form of wages most in harmony with the capitalist mode of production. It only conquers a larger field for action during the period of Manufacture, properly so-called. In the stormy youth of Modern Industry, it served as a lever for the lengthening of the working day, and the lowering of wages. In the workshops under the Factory Acts, piece-wage becomes the general rule, because capital can there only increase the efficacy of the working day by intensifying labour.

Chapter Twenty: National Differences of Wages

In every country there is a certain average intensity of labour, below which the labour for the production of a commodity requires more than the socially necessary time, and therefore does not reckon as labour of normal quality. Only a degree of intensity above the national average affects, in a given country, the measure of value of the mere duration of the working time. This is not the case on the universal market, whose integral parts are the individual countries.

The average intensity of labour changes from country to country; here it is greater, there less. These national averages form a scale, whose unit of measure is the average unit of universal labour. The more intense national labour, therefore, as compared with the less intense, produces in the same time more value, which expresses itself in more money.

The relative value of money will be less in the nation with more developed capitalist mode of production than in the nation with less developed. It follows, then, that the nominal wages, the equivalent of labour-power expressed in money, will also be higher in the first nation than in the second, which does not at all prove that this holds also for the real wages, i.e., for the means of subsistence placed at the disposal of the labourer.