Introduction to Marx, Labor-power, Working Class

This is the English translation of the introduction to Tronti’s essay Marx, Labour-Power, Working Class (1965), which in turn is forms the theses section of Tronti's book Operai e Capitale (Workers and Capital).

Please note that this translation is based on the French version, and should be superseded by a complete English translation of the original Italian, which we hope will not be delayed any longer. The second-order translation that follows is intended to provide more resources to the English discussion until Workers and Capital finally becomes available. The French translation, available on Multitudes, is preceded by the following note: "This text is included in the chapter of Workers and Capital titled 'First Theses,' to which it constitutes a kind of introduction. The first edition of Workers and Capital was published in 1966 by Einaudi. The French translation, by Yann Moulier in collaboration with G. Bezza, was published in 1977 by Christian Bourgois."

Let's start with the fundamental discovery which, according to Marx, is at the base of all of Capital, the Doppelcharakter of labor represented in commodities. That the commodity must be something double, at once use-value and exchange-value, this was already evident even at Marx's time. But that labor expressed in value possesses different characteristics from those of labor productive of use-value – this is what had remained unknown to thought in those days. Right at the beginning of Capital, Marx says: "I was the first to point out and to examine critically this twofold nature of the labour contained in commodities" (zwieschlächtige Natur: nature at once double, divided, and antagonistic). In the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, he in fact attempted an analysis of the commodity "as labor presenting a double form"; analysis of use-value as real labor or productive activity in accordance to an end, and analysis of exchange-value as labor-time or equal social labor; it ended finally with a critical balance sheet of 150 years of classical economy which extended, in England, from William Petty to Ricardo, and in France, from Boisguillebert to Sismondi. Marx's discovery is, on this terrain, "the transition from concrete labour to labour which produces exchange-value, i.e., the basic form of bourgeois labour."1

Since 1859, the Marxian concept of labor productive of value has presented three well-defined characteristics: it is simple labor, social labor, and general abstract labor. Each of these characteristics is in itself a process, which immediately presents itself as intimately linked to the processes of the other two: it is the ensemble of these processes which permits the passage from precapitalist forms of labor to their capitalist forms. And each process is an objective fact governed ineluctably by the laws of development of a nascent capitalism. Simple labor implies the reduction of all types of labor to labor which is simple, undifferentiated, uniform, always qualitatively equal and only different quantitatively; complex labour is nothing other than simple labor to the nth power; labor of greater intensity, of a specific greater gravity, is always reducible, which means that it must always be reduced to "unskilled labour"2, to unqualified labor, deprived of quality. But labour without quality and "human labor in general" are the same thing: not labor of different subjects, but of different individuals "as mere organs of this labor."  "This abstraction, human labour in general, exists in the form of average labour which, in a given society, the average person can perform, productive expenditure of a certain amount of human muscles, nerves, brain, etc."3 The specific form in which labor acquires its simple character is therefore that of human labor in general. The reduction to simple labor is a reduction to human abstract labor. The same goes for the social character of labor productive of value. The conditions of this labor – those which flow from the analysis of value – are social determinations of labor, or determinations of social labor. In one or the other case, they are not social tout court; they become so through a particular process. And what is the particularity of this social character? Two things: (1) the undifferentiated simplicity of labor which is the equivalent character of the labor of different individuals, which is to say the social character of the equivalence of the labor of each; (2) the general character of individual labor which appears as its social character since it is certainly the labor of the individual, but also the labor of each, not differentiated from the labor of another. In the logical passage between these two things, which is for that matter the historical passage of the social determinations of labor to the determinations of social labor, different exchange-values find a single general equivalent: which is only a social magnitude insofar as it is a general magnitude. But for a product to assume the form of a general equivalent, it is necessary for the labor itself of the individual to assume a general abstract character. The specific form in which labor acquires its social character, is therefore the form of abstract generality. The particular trait of this social labor is to be here also human abstract labor. Simple labor and social labor – as soon as they produce value – reduce themselves to abstract labor, to labor in general. It is therefore false to see in labor the unique source of material wealth; since we can only speak here, again and always, of concrete labor, creative of use-values. It is of abstract labor as the source of exchange value that we must speak instead. Concrete labor realizes itself in the infinite variety of its use-values; abstract labor realizes itself in the equivalence of commodities as general equivalents. Labor creative of use-values is the natural condition of human life, of the organic exchange between man and nature; labor creative of exchange values, on the other hand, refers to a specifically social form of labor. The first is particular labor that is divided into an infinity of types of labor; the second is always general labor, abstract and equivalent. "Labour as a source of material wealth was well known both to Moses, the law-giver, and to Adam Smith, the customs official."4 Labor creative of value is the first radical discovery from the working-class viewpoint applied to capitalist society.

With the appearance of the first volume of Capital, Marx wrote to Engels: "The best points in my book are: 1. (this is fundamental to all understanding of the facts) the two-fold character of labour according to whether it is expressed in use-value or exchange-value, which is brought out in the very First Chapter; 2. the treatment of surplus-value regardless of its particular forms as profit, interest, ground rent, etc"5. A few months later – in another letter – he criticized Dühring's report on capital for having failed to gather the "fundamentally new elements" of the book, namely: "(1) That in contrast to all former political economy, which from the very outset treats the different fragments of surplus value with their fixed forms of rent, profit, and interest as already given, I first deal with the general form of surplus value, in which all these fragments are still undifferentiated – in solution, as it were. (2) That the economists, without exception, have missed the simple point that if the commodity has a double character – use value and exchange value – then the labour represented by the commodity must also have a two-fold character, while the mere analysis of labour as such, as in Smith, Ricardo, etc, is bound to come up everywhere against inexplicable problems"6. We will return later to the organic connection that intimately links the content of these two discoveries: the concept of labor-power, and that of surplus value. For the moment, we will hasten in finding the origin of the first, in the works of Marx and in his sources.

"If then we disregard the use-value of commodities, only one property remains, that of being products of labour. But even the product of labour has already been transformed in our hands. If we make abstraction from its use-value, we abstract also from the material constituents and forms which make it a use-value…The useful character of the kinds of labour embodied in them also disappears; this in turn entails the disappearance of the different concrete forms of labour. They can no longer be distinguished, but are altogether reduced to the same kind of labour, human labour in the abstract." What is then, at this stage, the residue of the products of labor? Nothing if not "the same phantom-like objectivity; they are merely congealed quantities of homogeneous human labour." There is only "human labour-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure." It is only as crystals of this common social substance – human labor-power– that things are "values, commodity-values."7

A common social substance (gemeinschaftliche gesellschaftliche Substanz) of things, common to commodities, which is to say common to the products of labor and not "the common social substance of exchange value" (see the beginning of the "Critical Notes on Adolph Wagner's Treatise on Political Economy")8, but wertblindende Substanz (valorizing substance): such is the first definition of the concept of labor-power that one finds in Capital. Marx says here Arbeitskraft; in Theories of Surplus Value he used instead the term Arbeitsvermögen; in the Grundrisse that of Arbeitsfähigkeit. The concept is the same. The philological passage from one term to another is not what interests us. In Marx, the distinction between labor and labor-power is found already achieved in all the preparatory works to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy9; given that all these works cover a decade (from '49 to '59), it is just after 48 that we are able to situate the definitive Marxian discovery of the concept of labor-power, in all its scope. It is evident that one can discover germs of this discovery in all the works before this date. These testify to the internal development of the concept of labor-power, of its internal and progressive specification, which enriches itself more and more with scientific determinations until the decisive encounter, which at the heart of the revolutionary experience of '48, will identify it definitively with the concept of the working class.

In certain notebooks of excerpts from the works of the greatest economists compiled by Marx in Paris in 1844, which served therefore in the formulation of the 1844 Manuscripts, we find already the concept (the word) Erwerbsarbeit, which we think can be translated directly by "industrial labor." In "industrial labor" we have, says Marx: "1) estrangement and fortuitous connection between labour and the subject who labours; 2) estrangement and fortuitous connection between labour and the object of labour; 3) that the worker's role is determined by social needs which, however, are alien to him and a compulsion to which he submits out of egoistic need and necessity, and which have for him only the significance of a means of satisfying his dire need, just as for them he exists only as a slave of their needs; 4) that to the worker the maintenance of his individual existence appears to be the purpose of his activity and what he actually does is regarded by him only as a means; that he carries on his life's activity in order to earn means of subsistence." In such an analysis, the unity of human labor comes only from its division. Once the division of labor is accepted, the product, the material of private property, becomes more and more the signification of the equivalent. It is in money that the equivalent acquires its existence as equivalent. And in money is manifested already the total domination of the object, having become alien, over man: "The separation of work from itself (Trennung der Arbeit von sich selbst)  – separation of the worker from the capitalist – separation of labour and capital." For the economist, there is the division between production and consumption, and as intermediary between the two, exchange or distribution. But "the separation of production and consumption, of action and spirit, in different individuals and in the same individual, is the separation of labour from its object and from itself as something spiritual." It is the separation of "labour from labour" (Trennung der Arbeit von Arbeit)10

In the first of the 1844 Manuscripts, in the chapter on the wage, Marx writes: "It goes without saying that the proletarian (Proletarier), i.e., the man who, being without capital and rent, lives purely by labour, and by a one-sided, abstract labour (rein von der Arbeit und einer einseitigen, abstrakten Arbeit lebt), is considered by political economy only as a worker (Arbeiter)… In political economy labour occurs only in the form of activity as a source of livelihood (unter der Gestalt der Erwerbstätigkeit)." But if we "rise above the level of political economy," that's when two decisive questions arise, and it is not by accident that they appear to Marx at this precise place: "(1) What in the evolution of mankind is the meaning of this reduction of the greater part of mankind to abstract labour (auf die abstrakte Arbeit)? (2) What are the mistakes committed by the piecemeal reformers, who either want to raise wages and in this way to improve the situation of the working class, or regard equality of wages (as Proudhon does) as the goal of social revolution?"11 Only much later will Marx give an otherwise decisive response to this question, in a fully satisfying fashion, in Capital. In their strongly "ideological" form, the Manuscripts contain practically nothing more than the direction, already indubitably present, of future research. "True, it is as a result of the movement of private property that we have obtained the concept of alienated labor (of alienated life) in political economy. But on analysis of this concept it becomes clear that though private property appears to be the reason, the cause of alienated labor, it is rather its consequence, just as the gods are originally not the cause but the effect of man’s intellectual confusion. Later this relationship becomes reciprocal. Only at the culmination of the development of private property does this, its secret, appear again, namely, that on the one hand it is the product of alienated labor, and that on the other it is the means by which labor alienates itself, the realization of this alienation."12

The reversal of the relation between labor and capital is entirely contained here in germ; we can already gather it in all the possibilities that it offers of a revolutionary approach to method, which opens wide all doors to immediately subversive solutions, as much at the level of theoretical research as that of practical struggle. We will demonstrate that the conducting thread of all of Marx's work can be found here. However, it is already possible for us to argue that, in this work, this discovery has not gone further than a brilliant intuition, always submitted to the uncertainties of the objective path of the history of capital, a path more slow, complex, indirect and unsure than the one that Marx's working-class viewpoint could consider. This strategic reversal of the relation between labor and capital, we must today rediscover completely, and repropose totally as a method of analysis and a guide to action. If we have a minimal tactical influence on the present situation, the truth of this principle leaps before the eyes. The state of maximum development of capital reveals, but in the facts, its secret, and emphasizes it.

"The subjective essence of private property –private property as activity for itself, as subject, as person – is labour." Only political economy has recognized labor for its principle: and thus it has revealed itself as a product of private property and modern industry. The fetishism of the mercantilist monetary system knew property as a solely objective essence of wealth. The Physiocratic doctrine represents a moment of decisive passage towards the discovery of a subjective existence of wealth in labor, but it was more about a concrete, particular labor, linked as far as its material to a natural determinate element. Starting with Adam Smith, political economy recognized the general essence of wealth, and was then led to "the raising up of labour in its total absoluteness (i.e., its abstraction) as the principle." "It is argued against physiocracy that agriculture, from the economic point of view – that is to say, from the only valid point of view – does not differ from any other industry; and that the essence of wealth, therefore, is not a specific form of labour bound to a particular element – a particular expression of labour – but labour in general (Arbeit uberhaupt)." In the process of scientific understanding of the subjective essence of private property, labor only appears at the start as agricultural labor, but it is then recognized as general labor. At this stage, "All wealth has become industrial wealth, the wealth of labour, and industry is accomplished labour, just as the factory system is the perfected essence of industry, that is of labour, and just as industrial capital is the accomplished objective form of private property."13

In the Arbeiterslohn manuscript, dated December 1847, we read at the beginning: “die menschliche Tätigkeit = Ware” ("Human activity = commodity")." We read later: "The worker (der Arbeiter: the laborer, not labor) becomes an increasingly one-sided productive force (Productivkfraft) which produces as much as possible in as little time as possible. Skilled labour increasingly transformed into simple labour." We see already appearing the theme of the general human activity of the worker reduced to the commodity. And the theme of the most complex labor reduced to the simplest. We find, additionally, at the end of the manuscript, a paragraph placed in parentheses by Marx, and carrying the indication that he wants to consider the problem "in general form": "since labour has become a commodity and as such subject to free competition, one seeks to produce it as cheaply as possible, i.e., at the lowest possible production cost. All physical labour has thereby become infinitely easy and simple for the future (künftige, says the Werke edition, the MEGA has Kräftige – healthy, vigorous) organisation of society."14. Here then is already the theme of social labor, even if its particular content causes problems and is not yet well defined.

This manuscript, Wages, carries the trace of the meetings that Marx held in 1847 with the German Workers' Society in Brussels, in the course of which he developed some points which he would not take up any further, even in the famous articles of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (April 1849) on "Wage Labor and Capital." If we subject these manuscripts of '47 to the same treatment that Engels reserved for the articles of '49 – namely, substitute Arbeitskraft for Arbeit, every time that it is a question of abstract labor, which is to say everywhere – we get the following result: the concept of labor-power (and the word itself) is found in the work of Marx, not only before Capital, but also before the Manifesto, and as a specific discovery, leading back – according to us – to the first critique of political economy, still insufficient, of the 1844 Manuscripts. "What the economists had considered as the cost of production of 'labour' was really the cost of production, not of 'labour,' but of the living labourer himself. And what this labourer sold to the capitalist was not his labour… But… He hires out or sells his labour-power. But this labour-power has grown up with his person and is inseparable from it," says Engels in the 1891 introduction to "Wage Labor and Capital."15 Here resides the whole difference between labor and labor-power. Present in the concept of labor-power is the figure of the worker, while in that of labor this is not the case. And the figure of the worker, who, in selling his own "labor," sells himself as "labor-power," we find entirely contained in the works of Marx, starting with the analyses of his youth on alienated labor. This is indeed the precondition for the whole course: in the conditions imposed by capital, the alienation of labor and the alienation of the worker are one and the same thing. Otherwise it would have been necessary to conclude that this analysis does not concern capitalist society, but society in general; not the worker, but man in general: this is the error of those who try to find in the young Marx nothing but an old philosophy of totality. The limit of the works of Marx, before '48, is found elsewhere. It is the still insufficient definition of labor-power as commodity, or rather the absence of an analysis of the special characteristics of this commodity, and of the consideration of labor-power as a "special" commodity. Before '48, we already find in Marx abstract labor as labor-power, and then as commodity. Only the pivotal moment of the Revolution of 1848 will bring forth in full clarity, in Marx, the theoretical progression which leads to the discovery of the special content of the labor-power commodity, since it is linked no longer only – through the alienation of labor – to the historical figure of the worker, but the birth of capital itself – through the production of surplus value. Almost at the beginning of "Wage Labor and Capital," we find this luminous affirmation: "after our readers have seen the class struggle of the year 1848 develop into colossal political proportions, it is time to examine more closely the economic conditions themselves upon which is founded the existence of the capitalist class and its class rule, as well as the slavery of the workers." For us, it is only in '48 – or rather after June '48 – that we can see produced, for the first time in Marx's thought, the encounter of the concept of labor-power with the movements of the working class. Here begins the true Marxian history of the labor-power commodity, which reappears, with all its "special characteristics," that is with its specifically working-class content, but this time in explicitly defined terms, in the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and later in Capital. In this sense, the bourgeoisie was right to lament, even though it had beaten the workers on the ground: "Damned be June!"

Labor as abstract labor, and therefore as labor-power – we find this already in Hegel. Labor-power – and not only labor – as commodity, we find this already in Ricardo. The commodity labor power as working class: this is the discovery of Marx. The double character of labor is only the preliminary. It does not constitute the discovery, but only the means of reaching it. We do not pass from labor to working class, whereas we can do this if we start with labor-power. To speak no longer of labor, but of labor-power, this is to speak of the worker and no longer of labor. Labor-power, living labor, and the living worker, are synonymous terms. The critique of the expression "value of labor," the definition of the "value of labor-power" permits the passage to the concept of surplus-value. Pre-Marxist socialist ideology (like everything that is post-Marxist) has never taken this path. It has therefore never put its finger on the historical existence of the working class. And what is the latter, at this level, if not social labor-power, productive of surplus-value? And from surplus-value to profit, and from profit to capital, such is the path that it follows. The living commodity which is the socially organized worker, reveals itself as being not only the place of theoretical origin, but also the historico-practical prerequisite that we call the fundamental articulation of capitalist society (Glied and Grund at the same time)16

But these are the conclusion of the analysis: it is still necessary for us to demonstrate the premises. This is not from the scholastic necessity of philologically specifying the terms of the problem that arises from the search for the principal sources of the concept of labor in Marx; but rather the practically necessity of isolating his true discoveries, to be able to recognize and develop them, as well as the deliberate choice of separating on the spot everything that painfully comes to life in the field of working-class thought, so as to use, for our own ends, elements of the opposing thought. What Schumpeter called "the impressive synthesis that is Marx's work" presents almost always the following characteristic: it is not each particular discovery that counts, but the overall use made of each discovery by the other, their overall  rearrangement according to a single direction of thought, thanks to the relatively unilateral orientation given by an exclusive point of view. This is where all the sectarianism of working-class science resides. Marx provided a model, which he himself was not always capable of following in his analysis and its conclusions. No Marxist after him did. The only decisive exception: Lenin and his revolution. In this case, the method of unilateral synthesis, the path of access to the comprehensive possession of social reality, starting from a deliberate tendentious choice, led in practice to concrete forms of political organization. This is the most important passage that there has been – since Marx – in the history of working-class thought. From that day, the bourgeois mystification of an immediate identification of the particular interests of a class with the general interest of society proved itself to be no longer possible, at the theoretical level as much as the practical level. The control of society in general is to be attained by struggle, when the domination of a particular class imposes itself. On this field, two viewpoints almost equal in force and power collide. The universal reign of ideology collapses with a crash. There is no longer room for two positions of opposing classes, each looking to impose, by authority and violence, its exclusive domination over society. It was to this that Lenin, in practice, constrained the capitalists of his day, in organizing the revolution prematurely. The Marxian analysis of capitalist society was also "premature" with regard to its epoch. Here is why Capital and the October Revolution had the same historical destiny. It is easy to enumerate the enormous historical and logical contradictions that oppose one another: in the end the conclusion to be drawn is that all this does not make a dent, in the slightest bit, in a crumb of their validity. The truth is that it is a matter of a single method applied at two different levels: the theoretical and practical usage of a network of material conditions (series of concepts or series of circumstances) operating by a rigorous working-class viewpoint, inscribing itself in a process of subversion of capitalist society. The treatment that Marx intended for the categories of political economy, or the concepts of classical philosophy is the same that Lenin reserved for the two middle layers of the old society, or the historical parties of the old State. Marx powerfully discovered a tactical moment of research: the practical capacity to use certain results obtained by the science of the epoch, to reverse them in the opposed dimension of a strategic alternative. Lenin – the only Marxist to have understood Marx on this point – directly translated this theoretical method into laws for action. The Leninist discovery of the tactic is only the extension of a theoretical discovery of Marx in the domain of practice: namely, the universal, conscious, realist, and never ideological character of the working-class viewpoint of capitalist society. We want to get as far as demonstrating that "all value in labor" and "all power to the soviets" are one and the same thing: two watchwords that recover a moment of tactical struggle, and at the same time contradict none of the possible strategic developments: two laws of movement which are not those of capitalist society (this is where Marx's error was, since here we risk losing the tactical moment), but those of the working class internal to capitalist society (and this is the Leninist correction brought to Marx).

At this stage, to clarify the problem, it becomes indispensable to have a word about Marx's sources, regarding the specific and decisive question of the definition of the concept of labor. The Marx/Hegel relation has long been studied. On the other hand, on the Marx/Ricardo relation, almost nothing has been done. The most interesting thing consists in studying the Hegel/Ricardo relation. If we had the time and the political tranquility, we might think of proceeding with a detailed comparative analysis of the Hegelian Phenomenology and Ricardo's Principles: we would find that the material treated is identical, with an identical mode of treatment (method), and different only in the "form" with which it is treated, which has oriented them towards different disciplines, unable to communicate with each other. Here we limit ourselves to raising the Hegel/Ricardo relation, in its objective terms, by means of a separate although parallel analysis. Marx remarks: "If the Englishman transforms men into hats, the German transforms hats into ideas. The Englishman is Ricardo, rich banker and distinguished economist; the German is Hegel, simple professor at the University of Berlin."17

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Jul 1 2013 13:34


  • The control of society in general is to be attained by struggle, when the domination of a particular class imposes itself. On this field, two viewpoints almost equal in force and power collide. The universal reign of ideology collapses with a crash.

    Mario Tronti

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Jul 1 2013 05:29

Thanks for this, whoever translated it!