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Marx and the Abolition of the Wages System

At any time in the history of capitalism there have been lots of people and organisations occupied in trying to solve wages problems, the difference between now and the past being that the problems multiply and become more complex and the armies of “solvers”, politicians, business men, academics, trade union officials and so on become larger and larger. There is not the slightest prospect that these people will solve the problems.

A century ago Karl Marx urged the trade unions to give up struggling for “fair” wages and go for the abolition of the wages system; not, of course, as a tactic that could be operated in a capitalist social system but as an integral part of the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by Socialism. Marx was being logical. The Socialism he envisaged involved “abolition of buying and selling, of the bourgeois conditions of production” (Communist Manifesto) and it would obviously not be possible to abolish buying and selling generally and yet retain it in the form of the employer buying the worker’s labour-power and paying him wages for it.

In the late nineteenth century the idea of abolishing the wages system appeared to have become widely accepted in organizations making some claim to be socialist. In 1890 the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society both signed “The Manifesto of English Socialists” which contained the pledge: ‘We look forward to an end forever to the wages system”.

Among the individuals who signed on behalf of their organizations were Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb, but before long most of the signatories forgot all about it and were busy joining the Labour Party which devoted itself to the attempt to solve social problems, including wages problems, within capitalism. That attempt has of course been fruitless.

Marx foresaw that it would fail and explained why this was bound to happen. In one of his early writings he said: “What errors are committed by the advocates of piecemeal reform, who either want to raise wages and thereby improve the conditions of the working class, or (like Proudhon) regard equality of wages as the aim of social revolution”. Quoted in McLellan’s Marx Before Marxism, Pelican, p.214.)

And he pinpointed the basic error of their approach to the problem in their belief that it is possible to retain the capitalist mode of production and superimpose on it a socialist principle of distribution. One place in which he explained his was in his notes on the 1875 constitution of the German Social-Democratic Party, published as Critique of the Gotha Programme.

    "Vulgar socialism has accepted as gospel from the bourgeois economists (and a part even of the democracy has taken over the doctrine from the unreflecting socialists) that the problem of distribution can be considered and treated independently of the mode of production, from which it is inferred that socialism turns mainly upon the question of distribution."

Written long before the British Labour Party was formed, this might be a description of the muddled thinking that has always governed the actions of Labour governments.

They were to be the “high wage” party, constantly pushing wages up through minimum wage legislation, through encouragement of trade unions in their claims, and by abolishing unemployment. Now, in the eighth British Labour government, the forefront of their policy is “the social contract”, an agreement with the TUC to dissuade the unions from making wage claims they would otherwise be making — with “real” wages, after discounting the rise of prices, falling for several years running and with unemployment at a post-1945 record level.

As social reformers they wanted to raise wages generally, and particularly for the lowest paid; but as a government trying in vain to control and direct capitalism they find themselves doing all the things for which they denounced the openly capitalist parties. One of their dilemmas is that capitalism requires that the workers shall be forced to work on terms that accept exploitation, that is, terms which enable the capitalists to make profit. But the fallacious theory on which the Labour Party wants to operate required that the Government go on raising social security benefits to the unemployed and others in need. The necessities of capitalism prevail over the “good intentions” of the reformers.

Edgar Hardcastle