formal and real subsumption

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Joined: 25-11-06
Feb 7 2011 05:57
Assuming that Marx left that section out intentionally, I wonder just how important it really is for Marxists to consider...

Well, that would depend on what one considered one's relationship to Marx's intellectual project to be.

I think that Marx not publishing volume II & III of capital was significant in showing how he felt about them but I don't think it means we shouldn't consider them.

Altogether, I am most attracted to the position that Marx's work was neither fully consistent nor fully complete. But I'm still not interested in a long textual debate concerning whether or not that's true.

Instead, I think revolutionaries would do best have a consistent, coherent theory that they can defend without reference to Marx, even if their ideas are very much inspired by Marx. If you take that approach, I think looking things Marx didn't publish is fine since you would have your own criteria for whether they were worthwhile.


Hieronymous's picture
Joined: 27-07-07
Feb 7 2011 01:39

Marx didn't finish Volumes II & III of Capital because he was a slacker who would rather read Shakespeare, do math equations, or regale his kids by reciting poems he memorized in their entirety.

When he died, he left 6 cubic meters of notes on the Russian mir. Engels was constantly on him as his taskmaster, yet he still didn't fulfill all his writing obligations at the time of his death.

waslax's picture
Joined: 6-12-07
Feb 8 2011 10:35
automattick wrote:
posthumously added.

Thank you, Khawaga. Assuming that Marx left that section out intentionally, I wonder just how important it really is for Marxists to consider...

Like Red said, it depends on what theory you defend. There are different forms or versions of Marxist theory. There was once a Marxist orthodoxy, which would have said we should ignore all of this stuff that wasn't published during Marx's lifetime (except maybe that which was published before Engels' death), such the "Results" and the "Grundrisse". Personally, I would be suspicious of anyone who said not to read those, or that there is no need to do so since he (Marx) says the same things elsewhere and better.

Bottom line is you need to not defer to someone else's opinion as authoritative, and instead investigate these works for yourself. There is no question that they contain ideas Marx never developed similarly elsewhere, and there is also no question that some of the more recent (past 40 years) forms of non-traditional Marxism have been very much inspired by these works.

Khawaga's picture
Joined: 7-08-06
Feb 7 2011 16:26
automattick wrote:
Thank you, Khawaga. Assuming that Marx left that section out intentionally, I wonder just how important it really is for Marxists to consider...

What all the others have said really. When I read the appendix the first time I was struck with how much it clarified certain elements in Capital. Not surprising though, considering Marx's method of exposition.

The same with the Grundrisse and Vol. 2 as well really. Volume 3 I am more skeptical of, though if and only if you're interested in Marxology, because Engles was very heavy handed with that text. Not merely stitching various manuscripts together, but also re-writing stuff, adding in new things etc. However, that is not an argument against reading it.

Angelus Novus
Joined: 27-07-06
Feb 7 2011 16:58

I think there is some confusion here, the evidence being the constant use of the phrase "left out".

Part of the confusion stems from people like Loren Goldner misleadingly using the phrase "unpublished 6th chapter", which implies that this is a chapter Marx left out of the final draft.

The "Resultate" are in fact the only surviving section of a manuscript dealing with subject matter that would later be dealt with in Capital, part of a larger collection of work known as the "Economic Manuscripts of 1863-1865.

These are collected in MEGA II/4.1-4.2

So we're not dealing with some chapter that Marx left out of the published version of Vol. I, but basically the only surviving fragment of a manuscript whose subject matter would later be dealth with in Vol. I.

As to whether to pay attention to it, well, I think Camatte/Bordiga groupies and Operaists tend to totally treat it as some sort of Rosetta Stone of Marx interpretation, but here in Germany, it's generally more used in reading circles as a useful summary of Vol. I to refresh people starting Vol. II.

Khawaga's picture
Joined: 7-08-06
Feb 7 2011 17:02
Angelus Novus wrote:
but here in Germany, it's generally more used in reading circles as a useful summary of Vol. I to refresh people starting Vol. II.

Agreed, it is an excellent bridge to Vol 2. More so than Mandel's intro to (the English) Vol. 2. The reason why the (post)operaist love it is because of the more direct inclusion of formal vs. subsumption, productive/unproductive labour and so on.

automattick's picture
Joined: 13-06-10
Feb 8 2011 03:52

Good points, comrades. I actually think the theory is quite helpful, i.e., real and formal subsumption, but like everything else, some authors jettison aspects of works (or works in their entirety) for a reason.

Tom Henry
Joined: 26-09-16
Oct 9 2016 23:27

With a couple of minor amendments I have moved this post from here:
- where a discussion of the position of the group Endnotes on programmatism, real subsumption and the 'social factory' continues.

There is, as I see it, a lot of confusion amongst those who discuss Marx’s idea of formal and real subsumption of labour or what could equally be termed the formal and real domination of capital. Below I am hoping to offer a simple way into these concepts that instead of creating more ambiguity and muddle, gives us an opportunity to use these concepts effectively in our perception and critique of the world around us and the history we inhabit. (I have not backed up my argument with copious texts and quotes and page references because I don’t want them to get in the way of what is intended to be a simple exegesis – but I am happy to provide pointers to the bases of my argument).

Most recognise that Marx is describing a transition between two distinct phases of capitalism.

The first, the formal phase is the domination of labour by proto-capitalists who in the main are extracting absolute surplus value from their workforces. It is important to understand that these emergent capitalists understand the sense of re-investing in an enterprise in order to enable its expansion. These entrepreneurs, who formed economic movements, demonstrated the understanding that all businesses must expand or die. This was a crucial development in history because it also followed the logic of the State – a phenomenon that must also expand or die. The marriage of this understanding of business and the maintenance of States is part of the revolution of the ‘modern’ era.

The second, real phase of domination of labour occurs when the emergent capitalists as a whole, indeed society as a whole, recognises that in order for business to grow it must move from the acquisition of absolute surplus value to wealth generated by relative surplus value.

(Because this recognition of factors that influence economic gain is a phenomenon outside of philosophical musings or political ambition it did not constitute an ‘ideology’ as such at the time, it ‘only’ - more importantly, of course - changed the way people lived their lives. It took an astute and lucky philosopher and historian, Karl Marx, to uncover the real significance of this change, but he was only able to do it much later.)

It is the notion of relative surplus value that is consistently either misunderstood or neglected in accounts of the transition from formal to real domination of labour. What must be understood, in my opinion, is that the economic sphere several hundred years ago saw a great deal of people who directed enterprises becoming aware (for various reasons, including the rise of Protestantism, or the work ethic) that businesses had to expand or they would die. These people then searched for better ways of expanding businesses and increasing profits. The most obvious way of doing this is to make workers work harder and longer – and this results in an increase in, what Marx termed, absolute surplus value. However, many people realised that if techniques involving the production process could be improved along with developments in the technology used to produce commodities then more profits could be made within the same amount of labour time – this is what Marx describes as acquiring relative surplus value. This is, as Marx insists, the revolution of capitalism, as well as the reason that the economy can revolutionise itself so often within the capitalist social relation..

It is only by understanding the importance of this change – the change from exploiting labour via methods that acquire absolute surplus value, to exploiting labour via methods that acquire relative surplus value (getting more out of people for the same amount of time, or less, and the same amount of effort, or less) – that we can understand why the modern era is represented by a sudden and explosive development of technology. As the practice of finding ways to increase profit and wealth via the methods needed to extract relative surplus value became the common driving force in societies then more and more people who were able to live from the increase of wealth were inexorably driven to create technology and processes that would increase production levels and capabilities. This is why the steam engine was invented. This is why the world now has nanotechnology. This is why we see apparent revolutions in technology and organisation so often (for me, by the way, these revolutions only seem to deepen misery and escalate boredom, even though they may extend life for some, and provide them with the amusement of computer games).

It was not, therefore, some mysterious magical alchemy that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the incredible technological advances that we have seen: it was the result of the process by which relative surplus value could be extracted from labour. So, for me, until I realised the significance of the fact of the process by which relative surplus value is acquired I was unable to explain why capitalism was really any different to any other form of economy or exploitation, and I was stuck within a narrative that could not explain the sudden rise of technology and the Industrial revolution.

So, the period of the real subsumption of labour is that in which society, as a whole, walks to the tune of relative surplus value. When humans enter this phase they have, to use Jacques Camatte’s concept, become domesticated by the economic process.

But nowhere in the discussion so far in this thread has there been any examination of relative surplus value, despite Marx insisting on “the crucial importance of relative surplus value” in the discussion of the concept of the formal and real subsumption of labour [Capital Volume 1, page 1023, original emphasis, Penguin edition, 1976 – ‘Results of the Immediate Process of Production’].

Real subsumption is neither as simple nor as vague as Revol68 describes above. A definition that appears too be endorsed by posters so far:

“In formal subsumption old forms of production are assimilated into the circuits of capital ie peasants producing for and being paid by capitalists, whilst real subsumption is when the very processes of production are transformed by capital ie modern factory farming.”

While absolute and relative surplus value are discussed by groups such as Endnotes and Theorie Communiste, and the other groups mentioned by Spikeymike, there is no genuine connection made between the idea of the formal and real subsumption of labour and the core motor of capitalism: the extraction of relative surplus value. Even Jacques Camatte misses the simple importance of relative surplus value, although he uses Marx well to describe what our lives are now like under capitalism.

In the quote below from Endnotes ( ) we can see how torturous their attempts are to come to grips with what Marx is saying.

“In “Results of the Direct Production Process” (hereafter Results) Marx associates the categories of formal and real subsumption very closely with those of absolute and relative surplus-value.11We can identify more specifically what distinguishes real from formal subsumption in terms of these two categories.
“Formal subsumption remains merely formal precisely in the sense that it does not involve capital’s transformation of a given labour process, but simply its taking hold of it. Capital can extract surplus value from the labour process simply as it is given — with its given productivity of labour — but it can do so only insofar as it can extend the social working day beyond what must be expended on necessary labour. It is for this reason that formal subsumption alone could only ever yield absolute surplus value: the absoluteness of absolute surplus value lies in the fact that its extraction involves an absolute extension of the social working day — it is a simple quantity in excess of what is socially necessary for workers to reproduce themselves.12
“The subsumption of the labour process under the valorisation process of capital becomes “real” insofar as capital does not merely rest with the labour process as it is given, but steps beyond formal possession of that process to transform it in its own image. Through technological innovations and other alterations in the labour process, capital is able to increase the productivity of labour. Since higher productivity means that less labour is required to produce the goods which the working class consumes, capital thereby reduces the portion of the social working day devoted to necessary labour, and concomitantly increases that devoted to surplus labour. The relativity of relative surplus value lies in the fact that the surplus part of the social working day may thus be surplus relative to a decreasing necessary part, meaning that capital may valorise itself on the basis of a given length of social working day — or even one that is diminished in absolute length.13 The production of relative surplus-value, and the real subsumption through which this takes place, are driven by the competition between capitals: individual capitalists are spurred on to seize the initiative by the fact that, while the value of commodities is determined by the socially necessary labour-time for their production, if they introduce technological innovations which increase the productivity of labour, they will be able to sell commodities at a price above their “individual value”.14 “ [The History of Subsumption, Endnotes 2]


Instead of looking more directly at what the extraction of absolute and relative surplus value consists of, they sink into an attempt to define words and terms in a writing strategy that appears to avoid clarity and to make it appear as if they know what they are talking about. However, and please forgive me for my apparent harshness, a prudent reader will, I think, come away from this quote (indeed the whole article) with the suspicion that Endnotes in fact do not understand what they are attempting to explain. However, it should also be noted that Theorie Communiste and all those (as far as I am aware) who have tried to explain to us the meaning of real subsumption have failed to get to the point, so they are in respectable company.

The fact of the matter, it seems to me, is that to understand these things we need to understand how it was that capitalism emerged. But this is not as complex as the endless reading list some will provide indicates… it rests on discovering the significance of what Marx said about relative surplus value.

Joined: 6-01-07
Oct 5 2018 13:00

Thought I would get another plug in here for Claude Bitot's book with my comments: with additions here,

Dave B
Joined: 3-08-08
Oct 5 2018 18:24

Actually the process could be complicated.

So for instance in Russia circa 1860 landowners would sort of rent out their serfs seasonally when not required for agricultural work, which had a periodic nature in the northern hemisphere.

And the serfs would go marching off to work in mines and the lumber industry etc when not required by the landowners.

The landowners would take a big cut of what they earned; a bit like modern job agencies?

It was a bit weird in Russia as some of the first capitalists, in textiles, were legalistically serfs or somebody’s ‘slaves’.

The same went on with slavery in the US with the living out system with often the slaves going into the job market sometimes 100 of miles away and in “North” and sending back sought of ‘remittances’ to the slave owners who had let them go.

Usually holding the slaves family members as economic hostages, unless the slaves were Christians or something.

It was covered in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

There was quite a lot of contemporary hard data on study of it it in the archives of an American university which was employing slaves as wage labourers as cooks and cleaners etc.

It was called the ‘living out’ or ‘hiring out’ system.

There was data on it for slave skilled labour in carpentry etc in New York as well.

In an episode of Little ‘House on the Prairie’ the simple commodity producing peasant Charles Ingalls worked for a while as a wage labourer in a quarry.

Tom Henry
Joined: 26-09-16
Oct 6 2018 12:06

Hey Dave B, if you are serious about easing the 'mysticism' of all this for yourself you should probably read "Theory as History" by Jairus Banaji, along with thinking more about the practical, historical, difference between absolute and relative surplus value.