What Reduction of Working Time?

The Internationalist Communist Group on labour time, and the reduction of the working week in France.


One of the bourgeoisie's strengths is to present the reforms needed for the accumulation of capital as working class conquests. This is the case of the so-called 'reduction of working time' preached by all the unions and left parties of the world.

Constantly in search of extraordinary surplus value, the capitalists are always obliged to renew, to modernise their means of production in order to increase productivity. The increase in productivity comes essentially from a more continuous, more organised and more intense use of the productive forces, among which the most important one is the labour-power. As capital changes its methods of work, it changes labour-power as well as men themselves since it changes the relation of men to their work. For the workers, it always means an increase in the exploitation rate; first of all because the salaries are never related to the production of wealth; secondly because any increase in productivity means an increase in the labour intensity. Under capital, the use of new machines always brings along an increase in the division of work, a more severe, more scientific and more rational organisation of working time, which submits the proletarian to more severe controls, regulations and obligations. This means the 'dead times' chase, the struggle against absenteeism, the development of the mobility of the labour force, the continuous supervision, the acceleration of rates...

Facing the perpetual reinforcement of exploitation, a steady claim of the working class has always been and still is the reduction of working time. This is why the bourgeoisie tries to identify this proletarian claim with the "legal limitation of the working day" (without which the social work could not be made more intense and more productive of surplus-value) in order to change the workers' movement into a permanent reform of capital.

The legal reduction of the working time has nothing to do with a reappropriation of time by the workers and is only a formal reduction of the working time, which is only measured in terms of quantity by the chronometer without any care about its quality (intensity, density). This measure, far from being a step towards the emancipation of the proletariat, only aims at adapting the labour power, the living labour, to the new conditions of exploitation, to let the workers accept to be more and more dependent of the capitalist machines, to reinforce the division of their lives following the needs of capitalist production, making them, in their work and in their leisure, simple reproducers of surplus-value.

The reduction of working time as the expression of the proletariat's emancipation from its secular work slavery will only be real in a situation of hard struggles between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie where the working class tends to impose by force its own claims of destruction of capitalism.

It is therefore necessary to distinguish increase in productivity and intensification of work. Under capital, both concepts are bound because productivity cannot be increased without reinforcing the labour intensity and the exploitation of the proletariat. Under proletarian dictatorship, to the contrary, the increase in productivity will aim at reducing the labour intensity, reducing the exploitation of the proletariat.

Communism, because it does not need to accumulate capital and, to the contrary, answers human needs, because it will free the development of productive forces from the shackles of the capitalist mode of production, will reach a much higher productivity through the abolition of work.

The permanent increase in surplus-labour

While the serf, for example, works half the time on his own land and the other half on his lord's -in this way, the exploitation appears clearly-, the salaried worker receives a salary for his whole day of work, which seems then to be paid completely. The exploitation of free work is hidden by the abstract character of work under capital: "The individual works of isolated individuals do not acquire a character of social work in the form in which they have been carried out in the process of production but they acquire it only in the exchange, which represents an abstraction of the particular objects and of the specific forms of work". (I.Roubine, Essay on Marx' theory of Value)

Within the capitalist production, all commodities - including labour power - to be exchanged, have to be equalised, reduced to the same denominator, value or abstract work, whose measure is the social working time crystallised in it, necessary for their production or reproduction. Any good is therefore sold at its value (the law of supply and demand makes the prices oscillate around an average). Now precisely, the worker sells his labour power by the day while, for example, one hour of work would be sufficient to produce the value necessary for the reproduction of his own force; by working one hour a day, the worker would have produced enough goods to be exchanged against his means of survival (food, clothes, lodging...). The salary is the payment for this necessary work without which the proletarian would not be able to preserve or reproduce himself.

In this way, by paying the labour power at its value, the capitalist can appropriate himself the work performed during the rest of the hours of the day without owing anything to the proletarian since he respects the contract and the principle according to which any merchandise is sold at its value. This part of the work which is stolen by the bourgeoisie is called surplus-work; the value created during this surplus-work is called surplus-value; the rate between the necessary work and the surplus-work or between the salary and the surplus-value is called the rate of exploitation.

We have just seen the worker's day could be divided into two parts: the necessary work and the "surplus-work". The capitalist mode of production can only develop itself by reducing the necessary work and by increasing the "surplus-work". For the communists, the rate between necessary and surplus work is fundamental: not only the reduction of daily working time is compatible with the extension of surplus-work, but it is one of the elements used to extend this free work. In order to increase surplus-work, the capitalists have the possibility to lengthen the working day but the workers' struggle for the reduction of working time has been one of the elements that pushed the capitalists to increase surplus-work by reducing the necessary work (1).

"But when the surplus-value has to be produced by the conversion of necessary labour into surplus-labour, it by no means suffices for capital to take the labour process in the form under which it has been historically handed down, and then simply to prolong the duration of that process. The technical and social conditions of the process, and consequently the very mode of production must be revolutionised, before the productiveness of labour can be increased. By that means only can the value of labour power be made to sink, and the portion of working day necessary for the reproduction of that value be shortened." (MARX, Capital)

If a capital A, by new production techniques, can produce a larger amount of goods with less workers than its rival, it will have the possibility of selling its products at a lower price than its rival (it has to if it wants to sell the largest amount of goods), but, of course, at a higher price than their cost of production (less living work is crystallised in them and therefore less salary and more profit) until the value of identical commodities on the market decreases as a consequence of the generalisation of the production process and until the extraordinary surplus-value disappears. This is the process that pushes capitalists to find new technical innovations because it is only by winning rival markets that they can win this extraordinary surplus-value.

So every capitalist is forced to increase surplus-labour by reducing necessary-labour and therefore, increase productiveness and decrease the social work crystallised in each commodity and, in this way, decrease their value. This value decrease is also applicable to labour-power, which means a reduction of necessary labour. Temporarily, this decrease in the value of labour power gives the possibility to achieve an extraordinary surplus-value. But in this need for reducing necessary labour lies the basic contradiction of all the capitalist system, between the permanent processes of valorisation and devalorisation. Although the only source of profit, surplus-value, is nothing but the living labour included in any commodity, the increase in productiveness (or raising of the organic component of the capital) always means an increase in dead labour (technological development) or regard to living labour (labour power development). Hence the achievement of extraordinary surplus-value increasing the falling rate of profit.

One can therefore understand that the investment expenses grow continuously and tend to lower the profit rate (rate between profit and invested capital). In the same time, the constant decrease in the value of commodities causes an accelerated devalorisation of constant capital: buildings, machines. The redemption of these machines has to be made in an always shorter time; this requires a maximum production rate of the working forces: it is necessary to work the machines night and day to extract enough surplus-value and decrease the cost of labour power. This is why, under capitalist production, any increase in productiveness means an increase in the proletariat's subjection to the machines, to dead labour.

Productiveness today is the productiveness of capital. For capital, the interest does not lie in producing two goods instead of one for the sake of reducing man's labour to its half. What counts before all is that, in these two goods, a higher surplus-value will be produced to compensate the devalorisation of the commodities produced by half as much living labour. Any increase in productiveness causes a relative decrease in wages (compared to the quantity of wealth produced), a decrease in necessary work and an increase in surplus-work. The basic reality that the exploitation rate is relative because it is social and historical makes us understand the growing antagonism between proletariat and bourgeoisie and demystify the "social acquirements", the "increase in the standards of living", the "reduction of working time"...

In Belgium, for example, we can see in the statistics of the "Universite catholique de Louvain" that there has been a 11% cut in the working hours between l960 and 1973. But what the bourgeoisie will not tell is that this "progress" is due to the extraordinary rise in work productivity, which allows the workers to produce the same amount of goods in 1973 as in 1960 in only 43% of the working time they spent that year.

If this rise in work productivity had entirely benefited to the workers and had only been used to reduce the working time, it could have been reduced not by 11% but by 57%, which would mean a working time of less than 20 hours a week! (See the article "Maintien du pouvoir d'achat, un mot d'ordre reactionnaire". In Le Communiste No 4).

To limit the cost of new investments as much as possible, the capitalist is obliged to reduce the development of constant capital. To increase productivity, he will try, through technological developments, to intensify the work of the proletarians. This need for increasing the work intensity will force him to reduce the working time, not in order to reduce work but in order to increase it.

The duration of working time: an expression of the world-wide force relationship between classes

Historically, capital has developed itself by imposing work and extending the working day to its very limits. The descendants of serfs, who were dislodged from their lands and sent to the first textile manufactures, were heaped up in new industrial centres, locked up in workhouses. Those who tried to escape, the "vagabonds", were pursued, killed and used as examples to terrify the proletarians. The Niggers and American Indians as well as the European serfs all ended up in the industrial convict-prisons, factories and plantations. All of them went through the misery of the "primitive" expropriation and it was under the terror of weapons, of hunger and misery that they were educated to the last form of exploitation: salaried work.

All the bourgeois who know a little about history admit these facts but do not see the irreversible class antagonism revealed by them. To the contrary, they only see them as excesses from a past that progress has definitively eliminated, from times that are through. 0ne of their big arguments is the reduction of the working day (16,14,12,10,8 hours). These are supposititiously absolute facts, that could convince the workers that capitalism is not such an inhuman system (they will then talk about the "leisure society", the "free times era" as a fair reward for so many years of efforts, services and work for capital. But this only shows the lies and dreams of the stupid bourgeois understanding that substitutes the ideal vision of its own class situation to the world's reality.

In the historical centres of accumulation and concentration of capital, the big cities (in South America, North America, Europe...), the legal working day effectively tends to be reduced, but this is due only to the fantastic development of productivity which allows capital to stabilise class struggle and force social peace through giving "advantages" to certain categories of workers, while in the same time they increase the rate of surplus-value extraction.

Complementarily, the only possibility of capitalist valorisation in deserted zones is to maintain a very long working day that can compensate the low organic composition of the capital, making the labour conditions of these workers look out of time.

In some parts of the U.S.A., for example, (which are a symbol for a "developed society"), the extraction of surplus value takes the form of slavery (see the article in "Comunismo" No 7 on the working conditions of the clandestine immigrants in Texas, Florida, Virginia...). The flourishing multinational food company "Gulf and Western" has its offices in ultra-modern buildings in New York where the employees work under the U.S. legal standards, and gets its raw materials in Haiti where everybody knows that sugar plantations are real slavery-camps (work without rest, miserable wages, military surveillance...).

But salaried work does not only reveal its penal servitude character in the USA: see the camps in Siberia, South Africa, Mauritania, Mali, as well as the concentrationary "communities" in Cambodia, China, Haiti... In all industrial centres, (non-declared) labour is an essential stabilising factor of the economic life. New York, Chicago, and Hong Kong all have their "sweatshops", and the crowd of home-workers: "after eight or nine hours of work in workshops, the employees take their piece of work home where they work on another five or six hours,... the work conditions in the workshops are unbelievable: it is not rare to see thirty sawing machines piled up in a small room without any airing nor opening but the front door" (Le Monde Diplomatique, March 1982). The "clandestine" dress-making workshops of Paris are well-known. The factories for children in Napoli and in Bangkok don't even surprise the bourgeois newspapers any more... "The number of children and teen-agers of less than 15 years who work throughout the world has increased in the last two years. Today we can count 55 millions of them, but experts state that this number is by far underestimated, compared to the real extension of the phenomenon (Le Monde, 10-11/5/1981, after an investigation of the International Work Office).

"Everywhere, the industrial subcontracting helps evacuating part of the workers from the big metropolitan industry... In Italy, the small industries, reanimated by the crisis, at the limit of legality and of clandestinity, are often considered as the basis of the "second Italian miracle". In Japan, recent investigations have shown that subcontracting is an essential key of the present success of Nippon products in the world market... Forms of home-work, subcontracting techniques and "sweating systems" that we thought had disappeared in the West, have a new development as controlled segments of big industry. Thus, the dispersed factory (or, as the Italians call it, the "diffuse industry") has to be analysed as a particularity of the new organisation of production." (Le Monde Diplomatique, January 1982).

By showing these facts as excesses of the capitalist system, or as remains of pre-capitalist societies, not only does the bourgeoisie extenuate their real importance but it also gives credibility to "normal", "legal" work. But in these "clandestine" workshops as well as in the "legal" factories, the same commodities are produced to valorise capital and in both cases the worker has to sell himself to survive. The needs of the proletarians working there are never satisfied: unemployment for example mainly touches the "official" industry workers, and it is the same bourgeois misery that feeds the black markets and industrial convict-prisons. For us, there is no real difference between the proletarian labour in New York and in the Siberia mines, it seems to us vital to assert the similitude of wage-slavery all over the world (see the article on "worker-aristocracy" in "Le Communiste" No 10/11).

Some bourgeois claim that the "historical" diminution of labour time is a materialisation of worker acquirements, an evidence that capitalism and socialism can coexist and that there can be a progressive way from one to the other. It is always dangerous for the bourgeoisie to alter labour time reductions it gave up under class struggle pressure without compromising the credibility of its social system (i.e., the 40 hours in France in 1936, the 8 hour day in "Soviet" Russia and in Germany after the revolutionary struggles of 1917-1923).

After the crushing of the revolutionary wave of the twenties in the name of the workers' well-being, the bourgeoisie had to increase productivity all of a sudden in order to increase the exploitation rate. The deep and violent changes in the organic composition of the capital (increase in constant capital in proportion to the variable capital) led to an exacerbation of competition and conflicts between the different accumulation centres of the capital. The valorisation of capitals meant taking the rival productive forces or destroying them. It is those mutual destruction, especially of labour power, the generalisation of work-camps to all the planet, following very closely the "social acquirements" of the working class movement.

In 1948, when the English parliament voted the first laws of limitation of the working day (the Factory Act), it was already to put an and to a worker agitation that threatened to turn into a civil war. After the 10 hours legislation that also brought a wage-cut of 25%, the "working class, declared as criminal, was struck by prohibition and put under the suspect law" (Marx - Capital). In the same way, in France, the reform promulgated after February 1848 "dictates at the same time to all workshops and manufactures, without distinction, the same limit to the working day (...) and puts as a principle what had been obtained in England only for minors and women" (Marx - Capital). But it was immediately followed by the bloody slaughter of June insurrection in Paris. With this link between "the constant pressure of the workers acting from outside" and the legal intervention, the bourgeois rapidly transformed the class struggle into a struggle for the conquest of rights and the social laws produced by the state to reform its own system as "social acquirements".

It was under the pressure of a possible proletarian revolt that the bourgeois class unified, in spite of the difficulty, in the State, which represents general interests. The laws reducing the working day appear when the division of work comes to the point of making all industries dependent one upon another and when it becomes vital for "everybody" to avoid social troubles due to the excesses of some behind- hand capitalists, when these troubles compromise the interests of capital. So it becomes necessary for social reproduction to adapt the workers to their tools (which are continuously revolutioned) and to their new living conditions. This is why, for example, the State makes laws to limit the women's labour time and suppresses children's work, but in the same time establishes obligatory school and a family code (obligation of thrifty work at home).

But despite the reduction of labour time, the time of the worker is every day more submitted to the capital's necessities. Would it be his working time, the transportation time between his home and his working place, the time he needs to be in order with the administration, the police, the unions, the social security, etc., the time for professional formation, the time for taking care of his professional harms, the time for reproducing his labour power... all this social time belongs to the capital.

The social laws only materialise the bourgeois pretension to manage a production system based on work slavery with a scientific and humanitarian legitimity. They are nothing but formalisation of the bourgeois humanist and humanist principles, that "the worker sells his labour power in order to reproduce it and not to destroy it" and "the interest of capital itself is to ask him a normal working day".

The so-called "historical" reduction in France

Affected by the world crisis, all states have to face their "growth rate" -profit rate- collapsing. There is a surpllus production of goods and in the same time a quick devalorisation of constant capital; which force the capitalists to reduce investments. To fight this investment crisis (called "capital leakage" by the left and by the unions), the bourgeoisie will always try to find a new "industrial restructuration" (discovery of new organisation forms and of capital management). But the capitalists are unable to understand and to fight the reasons causing devalorisation: the growing contradiction between exchange value and use value. The measures they take only postpone the unavoidable bankrupt of their industry and impose the dominant class interests to the proletariat. By putting in question of form (neoliberalism, or Keynesian politics, self-management, or co-management) the causes or the answer to the crisis, the bourgeoisie creates its own weapons to slaughter the revolutionary proletariat. The "false consciousness" of the bourgeoisie comes from its dominant class position, which it has to defend. Thus, behind the government's reforms, one will always find fundamental class interests. With the "reduction of labour time to 39 h. a week" as it is asked for by the Socialist government in France, it is the opening of a new systematical battle against the proletariat.

All capital needs is to enslave more and more the labour power in order to control its use, its cost, following the standards of valorisation, restructuration and concentration.

By trying to show any increase in productivity as a simple mechanical perfection, without recognising the unavoidable intensification of work that it lays on proletarians, the socialist government shows a purely capitalist measure as a "worker conquest" and pushes the workers to believe that their own interests are those of national economy. Sacrifices, austerity, discipline and work are the very principles of "solidarity" which the government always refers to. Behind the so-called alternative: "either unemployment or a distribution of work that would allow a reduction of working time" we meet the same principles and the same reality: the absolute decrease in wages submitting the proletariat totally to the bourgeois state.

There is a general tendency by all governments (whatever their political "colour") to reduce the legal working time the "historical" shift from 40 to 39 hours in France, the decrease in official working time in manufactures has changed between 1970 and 1979 from 44.9 to 43.2 in Great Britain, from 43.3 to 40.6 in Japan, from 39.9 to 35.4 in Belgium. From 1974 to 1980 the highest differences have been observed in Norway and Israel (4 hours). While the working time was 40.6 hours a week in France in 1980, it reached 39.7 in the USA, 39.1 in Australia, 37.7 in Austria, 33.4 in Belgium, 32.9 in Denmark... (Le Monde, 16/2/82).

The whole protocol on "the reduction of working time" on which both the French bosses and trade unions agreed is guided by the aim of making French industry more competitive thanks to a more systematical use of constant capital (the duration of use of the equipment in automobile industry reaches 6150 hours in USA, 4000 to 4600 hours in Japan, 3700 to 4000 hours in France - INSEE Statistics) and more flexibility iin the distribution of work (in the USA as in Japan, the time-tables are well adapted to the needs of the market and the overtime work is largely used, from 10 to 15% in Japan).

"The investments in industrial equipment have decreased by 12% over 1981": such was a title in "Le Monde" of 9 June 1982. According to "Liberation" of 14 September 1981, "since 1973 any increase in wealth has come from a better efficiency in production". In order to fight the lack of investments, the bourgeoisie seems to use its machines to the maximum by making them work day and night with a more movable and less expensive mass of workers.

With the aggravation of world crisis, the work by teams and by posts has been generalised. The posted work becomes a normal thing for one third of the workers, among whom one half works on night teams. Steel industry, mines, textile and paper industries used to have the most posted workers: up to 85%. For a few years, this kind of work has spread to food industry and to the services sector. From 1957 to 1977, the percentage of workers "in posts" in transformation industry has more than doubled. This increase in posted work is to be related to the increase in the record of productivity: the sum of commodities produced in the Belgian industry has almost gone from one to three between 1956 and 1977 (following the weekly bulletin of the Kredietbank of 17 November 1978).

The French Prime Minister can say that those reforms will make the machines sweat instead of men, that they will improve the relationship between man and his work, that this will create new and more qualified employment, the only statement of such measures is in contradiction with their promises:

- extension of posted work with a fifth team for non-stop work;
- generalisation of temporary work;
- extension of overnight work for women;
- week-end work;
- "dead time" chase so as to make the 35 hours 35 effective hours of work;
- vulgarisation of overtime work, which will be paid only 25% more.

As Minister Auroux said: "To increase productiveness is not a mechanical operation: it's more a sort of compliance of the wage workers". The work conditions regulate the life of workers at the rhythm of capitalist valorisation; the often-changing time-tables disorganise the rhythm of life of the workers, of whom many are over-exhausted. According to the B.I.T., experiments have shown that night work require more physical and nervous energy for the same result and that mortality is higher among posted workers. Consequently it is really an increase in work intensity and in proletarians' exploitation that the "39 hours of the socialist government" aim at generalising; this is what Pierre Mauroy calls "the improvement of the relationships between man and his work" (2). For him, as for Stalin and for all capitalists: "man is the most precious capital". No need to wait for Raymond Barre's congratulations to the socialist government to understand that the agreements on the "reduction of working time" was the beginning of a big attack against the working class.

Only a few months after the legislation on working time reduction the socialist government established what it called "pecuniary compensation", which turned out to be nothing but a direct attack on salaries. New "solidarity taxes" were required from civil servants, "solidarity" contracts were settled between unions and bosses (wage- cuts from 1,6% at Gervais-Danone and B.S.N. to 20% at Fleury-Michon): the left government generalised wage-cuts.

The increases in taxes, in the prices of manufactured goods and services, the devaluation, the blocking of salaries, the decrease in unemployment benefits... all are direct attacks on proletarians' real salaries and help in financing the aid to industry through "solidarity contracts" (the enterprises that reduce working time to 36 hours a week before September 1983 will be free from social security subscriptions for each new employment resulting from the "reduction of working time").

The constant increase in unemployment (more than 2 millions now under the socialist government) contradicts the "socialist solutions" to unemployment. As Minister Delors admitted that the shift from 40 to 39 hours did not create new employment, the so-called reduction of work that was supposed to reduce unemployment showed its true face: a systematic attack against the working class. The new plans for employment of the French socialists mean nothing but unemployment allowances, intensified work and general wage-cuts. The Mauroy plans are but the repetition of those applied by all bourgeoisie in the world.

The French government, as any government, tries to distribute work in the most productive way in order to, as an Air-France commander says, "compensate the rigidity of the working time organisation, which often leads to insufficient yearly use of more and more sophisticated equipment that are an obstacle to the development of the productiveness of such equipment".

The principle directing the working time limitation is, consequently, a principle of rationalisation, productiveness of capital and intensification of work.


In this text we have shown how capital always tries to recuperate the workers' struggles and claims, which express their permanent interest to work less. The formal reduction of working time (the government's 35 hours) corresponds to an important increase in the exploitation rate and to the surplus-value rate extracted from the proletarians.

In fact, the reduction of working time, from the capitalist point of view (which includes all government's and unions' claims and promises), always corresponds to a decrease in the necessary work so as to increase the ratio of surplus work even if it is comprised in a day of 7 instead of 8 hours.

From this point of view, if the working day is reduced there must be an increase in the intensity of the exploitation. The proletarian point of view is completely opposed to this. The workers will always try to struggle to limit this exploitation not only in duration but in intensity. The proletarians' interest will be to really work less, which means to create less surplus value and to have their salaries increased. The true workers' struggles and claims only correspond to this historical perspective and are opposed to the bourgeois claims, to the so-called "strikes for the 35 hours" of the government, which mean nothing but capital's restructuration (hiding unemployment under part-time work,...) and increase exploitation.

Since proletariat and bourgeoisie have existed, the workers' struggle has expressed, even at the first level, the tendency to reduce working time, to increase salary whether by sabotage, theft or by strike and to impose, at least for some time, a reduction of working time and/or an increase in salaries.

Independently of any circumstantial claim expressing a permanent historical tendency at a certain time, in a certain place (it is sure that in some struggles the 40 hours are a real workers' claim, while in others it means the liquidation of the struggle) what counts is the direct antagonism to the logic of capital, to the surplus value production.

The interest of capital is to freeze any proletarian claim through legalising it and making it a "worker victory", changing it into an increase in exploitation. Hence the same difference of class existing between, for example, the 1st of May, an international day of struggle, and its legalisation/transformation into a holiday to the glory of wage slavery and between the meaning of the reduction of working time that aims at suppressing salaried work and its legalisation/transformation into a capitalist restructuration. Between the reduction of working time, which corresponds to the proletarian interests, and the same formula applied to capital's interests, there is all the antagonism separating the revolutionary proletariat from the bourgeoisie.


(1) "On the other hand, the length of the working day also has its extreme limits although very extensible. These extreme limits are given by the strength of the worker. If the daily exhaustion of his vital force goes under a certain degree, he will not be able to undertake a new activity. Nevertheless, as we said, this limit is extensible. A rapid succession of weakly generations will feed the work market as well as a series of strong and long lasting generations" (MARX, Salaries, prices and profits).

(2) "Work kills or wounds, each day, in the world, 160,000 people, but it creates even more mental illnesses (...). 1,200,000 people today suffer of grave mental disturbances", (B.I.T. Report for the international year of the crippled).

Posted By

Dec 15 2005 16:42


Attached files