Skip to Content


Organic composition of capital. The ratio of constant to variable capital (c/v). Constant capital is that money invested in machinery, buildings and raw materials. In the process of production their value is only transferred to the finished product. Variable capital is that money invested in labour power and is so called because this is the part of the total capital that increases in value in the process of production. An understanding of the organic composition of capital is important for ascertaining the rate of profit. (See also CAPITAL; LABOUR POWER.)


Overpopulation. In his Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, first published in 1798, the Reverend Thomas Malthus argued that population growth always tended to outstrip the growth in food supply, with the result that periodically population growth was checked by famine, disease and war. It was, and still remains, a very popular apology for the poverty of capitalism.

Karl Marx showed that there is no such thing as a general law of population that applied to all societies and to all times. At times under capitalism there seemed to be overpopulation and at others underpopulation. But this had nothing to do with the birth rate. It was a feature that appeared at the various stages of the business cycle. In depressions there were more people than jobs offered by capitalist industry. In booms, on the other hand, there was a comparative shortage of workers - as in the years after the Second World War when immigrants were recruited to make up the shortage.

It was not just a question of the number of people; moreover, productivity had to taken into account. Beginning with the industrial revolution, technological development increased social productivity so that more food was provided for the increasing population. However, food is not produced directly to meet human needs but rather for profit. Capitalism is a system of artificial scarcity, so creating poverty amidst potential abundance and the illusion that there are too many people and not enough to go around. (ABUNDANCE; ECOLOGY; GREENS.)


United Nations, Population


Owen, Robert (1771-1858). Born and died in Newtown, Wales. In 1800 he became a partner in a mill at New Lanark, Scotland, and was able to show in practice that people work better if their living and working conditions are improved. This confirmed the theory he was to set out in A New View of Society (1813), that the establishment of a better society was all a question of changing the environment. At first he addressed his pleas to the manufacturers and aristocrats; but when this failed he turned to establishing communitarian colonies, mostly in America, and most of which failed. In later years he was to be a formative influence on the co-operative movement and helped found the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in 1834.

The term ‘socialist’ is found for the first time in the Owenite Co-operative Magazine of November 1827. For Owen and his followers, ‘social’ signified ‘co-operation’ and a socialist supported co-operation. They criticised the private enterprise and competition that produced poverty, unemployment and crime. In their proposed ‘Villages of Co-operation’, private property, money, the Church, the legal and penal systems were all to be abolished and common ownership introduced. Owen’s labour standard of value was to determine the distribution of goods, though some would be given according to need. In the 1830s some of his followers established ‘labour bazaars’ where workers brought the products of their labour and received in exchange a labour note which entitled them to take from the bazaar any items which had taken the same time to produce. These bazaars were failures, but the idea of labour-time vouchers, or ‘labour money’, appeared in substantially similar forms in France with Proudhon, in Germany with Rodbertus and in England with Hodgskin and Gray. The idea was also to appear in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875). This proposition has been seized upon by left-wingers as proof that Marx presumed the use of money in the early phase of communism. But in this work, as elsewhere, Marx is clear that communism (in its early and mature phases) will be based on common ownership and have no use for money:

Within the co-operative society based on the common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products.’

Marx was quite adamant that his and Owen’s suggested labour-time vouchers would not function as money:

Owens “labour-money”, for instance, is no more “money” than a ticket for the theatre. Owen presupposes directly associated labour, a form of production that is entirely inconsistent with the production of commodities. The certificate of labour is merely evidence of the part taken by the individual in the common labour, and of his right to a certain portion of the common produce destined for consumption (Capital, Vol. 1).

These producers may… receive paper vouchers entitling them to withdraw from the social supplies of consumer goods a quantity corresponding to their labour-time. These vouchers are not money. They do not circulate’ (Capital, Vol. 2).

Marx only suggested labour-time vouchers as a possibility; given the low level of development of the productive forces, he believed that this was one way of regulating individual consumption. The objective was, for Marx and Owen: from each according to ability, to each according to need. And this is now realisable, as soon as a majority wants it. For Owen in the early nineteenth century the problem of the underdevelopment of the forces and relations of production was even more acute; and it is probably for this reason that he did not recognise the existence of the class struggle. This is why Marx and Engels called his ideas (along with those of Fourier and Saint-Simon) ‘Utopian Socialism’. (See also CO-OPERATIVES; UTOPIAN SOCIALISM.)


R.E. Davies, The Life of Robert Owen, 2009

Keith Taylor, The Political Ideas of the Utopian Socialists, 1982

Owen online: