The Proletariat (The Working Class). By Karl Kautsky

Specially translated for The Socialist Party of Great Britain and approved by the Author.


We have already seen in the previous chapter (See “From Handicraft to Capitalism.”) that capitalist production pre-supposes the divorce of the worker from the means of production. In large capitalist concerns we find on the one hand the capitalist who possesses the means of production but does not himself take part in production; and on the other hand the wage-workers, the Proletarians, who possess nothing but their labour-power, by the sale of which they live, and whose labour alone creates the products of the large concern.

In order to obtain the number of wage-workers necessary to satisfy the requirements of Capital, it was, as we observed, in the beginning essential to rely upon the aid of force. To-day such aid is no longer needed. The advantage the large concern has over the small enterprise suffices to expropriate and throw upon the labour market year by year a sufficient number of peasants and handicraftsmen, who together with the progeny of the already “freed” wage-workers more than satisfy the capitalist craving for “new human flesh” ; and this happens not only without infringing the laws of private property— but on the contrary by relying upon those laws.

That the number of Proletarians continually increases rapidly is so obvious that even those who would like to make us believe that Society is governed by the same conditions that prevailed a hundred and more years ago, and who are painting the future of small enterprise in the rosiest colours, do not venture to deny it.

Just as in production the large capitalist concern has become the dominant form of industrial enterprise, so in State and Society has the industrial wage-worker taken the most prominent place within the working class. This position was occupied four hundred years ago by the peasant, and a hundred years ago by the petty bourgeois.

The industrial wage-workers are already in all civilised countries the largest class ; it is their conditions and views, which increasingly determine the mode of life and thought of the other sections of labour. But that means a complete revolution in the prevailing conditions of life and forms of thought among the great mass of the population; for the conditions of the wage-workers, particularly of the industrial Proletarians (and under the capitalist mode of production agriculture becomes also an industry), differ totally from those of former categories of labour.

When the peasant or handicraftsman was the free owner of his means of production he commanded also the full product of his labour. The labour-product of the wage-worker, however, does not belong to him, but to the capitalist, the purchaser of labour-power, the owner of the necessary means of production. It is true that the wage-worker is aid for his labour-power by the capitalist, but the value contained in is wages by no means equals the value of his product.

When the industrial capitalist purchases the commodity labour-power, he naturally does so with the intention of utilising it in a profitable manner. We have seen that a certain amount of labour creates a certain amount of value. The more the worker labours, the greater (under otherwise equal conditions) will be the value he produces. If the industrial capitalist would let the wage-worker, whom he has hired, work only so long as to produce a value equal to the wages he receives, the employer would make no profit. But even if the capitalist would like to pose as a benefactor of suffering mankind, capital calls for profit, and the capitalist does not turn a deaf ear to this call. The longer the worker toils in the service of capital beyond the labour time necessary for producing the value of his wages—that is to say, the greater surplus there is left—from the total product created by him after the value equivalent to his wages is deducted, the greater is the surplus value (as this excess value is called) the greater is the exploitation of the worker, which finds a limit only in the exhaustion of the exploited and—in the possible resistance offered by him to the exploiter.

To the wage-worker private property in the instruments of production meant therefore from the outset something altogether different to what it signified to the handicraftsman or peasant; for while to these two it was originally the means of securing to them the complete ownership of their product; it has been for the wage-worker, and ever will be, nothing else but the means of exploiting him, of depriving him of the surplus value which he has created. The wage-worker from that standpoint is anything but a lover of “private property.” And in this connection he not only distinguishes himself from the property-owning peasant and handicraftsman, but also from the handicraftsman of precapitalist times.

These journeymen formed the transition from the master handicraftsman to the Proletarian, just as the concerns in which they were employed in larger numbers form the transition from petty enterprise to large industrial concerns. Yet how different they were to the Proletarians !

They were treated as members of the master’s family and they had the prospect of becoming masters themselves. But the wage-worker is only a hireling and condemned to remain a wage-worker. In these two points is summed up the cause for the difference between a handicraftsman and a wage-worker.

As the journeyman belonged to the family, he ate at the same table and slept in the house of his master, and the question of shelter and food did not exist as far as he was concerned. His wages in money were only a part of what he received from his master for his labour-power. The wages served less the purpose of satisfying the most necessary wants (which, as has been pointed out, were supplied by living with the master) than for the purpose of obtaining comforts or of saving, of accumulating the means required for setting up as master on his own account,

The journeyman worked together with the master. When the latter extended the hours of labour unusually, he was himself as much affected thereby as his assistant. There was therefore no strong desire on the part of the master to extend the working hours to the point of exhaustion, and even where that was the case, such intention was very easily restrained. Whenever the master endeavoured to make his own conditions of labour as agreeable as possible, the journeyman too, benefited thereby.

The instruments of production, which the small master required, were so few and simple that the craftsman did not need considerable means to set up as master. Every handicraftsman consequently had the opportunity of becoming a master; in fact, he already anticipated that position, and as he had to save in order to obtain the means to this end, he was as decided a defender of private property as the master craftsman.

It is necessary to point out that here the conditions of handicraft are being considered as they originally arose in pre-capitalist times.

Let us now compare with them the conditions of the wage-worker.

In capitalist industrial concerns wage-workers and capitalists are not active together; and although, in the course of economic development the industrial capitalist has acquired a separate identity from the merchant proper, and although the capitalists of commerce and those of industry have become two distinct sections, the industrial capitalist, strictly speaking, still remains a merchant. His activity as capitalist— as far as he at all plays an active part in his undertaking—is limited, like that of the dealer, to the market. His duties are to purchase as suitably and cheaply as possible the necessary raw material, auxiliary materials, labour-power, etc., and to sell as dearly as possible the goods produced in his concern. In the sphere of production he has to do nothing else but to see that the workers perform the largest amount of work possible for the smallest wages possible; that the largest amount of surplus value be squeezed out of them. The longer they work, the better for him. He does not get tired if the working hours are too long, he does not perish if the mode of production becomes a murderous one.

The capitalist is therefore far less considerate concerning the life and limb of the worker than was the master handicraftsman. The prolonging of the working day, the abolition of holidays, the introduction of night-work, the compulsion to work in damp or over-heated workshops, or places filled with noxious gases, etc.: these are the “improvements” which capitalist industrialism has brought to the worker.

The introduction of machinery has still further increased the dangers to the health and life of the worker. He is now chained to a monster which seizes upon him with gigantic strength and maddening speed. Only the closest, never-faltering attention on the part of the worker attending such a machine prevents his being caught and crushed by it. Safety arrangements cost money, and the capitalist does not introduce them, unless he is compelled to do so. Economy is above all the main virtue of the capitalist; and that demands his limiting the space in his factory and finding room in it for as many machines as possible. What does it matter to him, if by so doing he endangers the workers’ safety. Workmen are cheap ; but large, commodious premises are dear.

But the capitalist method of applying machinery changes the conditions of the workers in yet another manner for the worse.

The tools of the handicraftsman were inexpensive, and seldom required such considerable alterations as would have caused them to become altogether useless. It is different with the machine. That costs money, much money. If it becomes prematurely useless, or is not worked to its full capacity, it will bring the capitalist loss instead of profit. But the machine wears out not only in use, but also when standing still. On the other hand the increasing application of science upon the economic domain, resulting as it did, in the invention of the machine, has the effect of continually producing new inventions and discoveries, sometimes of greater, sometimes of less significance, and constantly causing, now one, now another kind of machine, at times even the entire plant of a factory, to become incapable of keeping up with competition, and thus to lose their value before having been completely used up. Owing to this uninterrupted evolution in the technical aspect of machines, every one is in danger of becoming valueless before being used up. This circumstance affords the capitalist sufficient ground for using up every machine from the moment he purchases it as speedily as possible. That is to say, the application of machinery in production is a spur to the capitalist to extend the hours of labour, to carry on if possible, an uninterrupted production, and to introduce the succession of day-and night-shifts, which means that the abominable practice of night-work becomes a permanent institution.

When the application of machinery first began, some idealists declared that the millenium had come, that the machine would relieve the worker from his labour and make him a free man. But in the hand of the capitalist the machine has become the most powerful lever for the purpose of making the labour-burden of the proletarian a crushing one, and his servitude unbearable and murderous.

But it is not only in respect of the hours of labour that the wage-worker under the capitalist mode of production is worse off than the handicraftsman. The wage-worker does not eat at the table of the capitalist nor live at his dwelling-house. He may dwell in most miserable quarters, feed upon refuse, why, even be in a starving condition, yet the comfort of the capitalist is not in the least disturbed thereby.

The meaning of the terms “starvation” and “wages” used to exclude one another. Then the free worker could only fall a victim to starvation if he was unable to find work. Everybody who worked had also to eat. The capitalist mode of production merits the distinction of having reconciled the two contradictions,—”starvation” and “wages”—and of having made “starvation-wages” a permanent institution, and even a mainstay of present society.

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