The Proletariat (The Working Class). By Karl Kautsky

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


Wages cannot be so high as to make it impossible for the capitalist to carry on his business and to live from it. For under these circumstances it would be more advantageous for the capitalist to give up business altogether. Hence the wages of the worker can never rise high enough to equal the value of his product. They must always leave a margin, a surplus value, for only the prospect of this margin induces the capitalist to buy labour-power. Thus in capitalist society wages can never rise so high that the exploitation of the worker comes to an end.

But the margin, the surplus value, is greater than is generally supposed. It consists not only of the profit of the manufacturer, but also much that is reckoned as cost of production and sale, viz., ground rent, interest on invested capital, discount for the merchant who disposes of the goods produced by the industrialist, taxes, rates, etc. All this comes out of the surplus value which the product of the worker yields above his wages. This margin must consequently be considerable if an undertaking is to prove profitable. Wages can, therefore, never rise sufficiently high to enable the worker to receive in his wages anything approaching the value he has created. The capitalist wage system means under all circumstances exploitation of the worker. It is impossible to abolish exploitation so long as that system exists, and even where high wages are being paid the exploitation of the worker must be extensive.

But wages hardly ever reach the highest possible point, more often, however, they fall to the very lowest. That point is reached when the wages of the worker cease to purchase his very necessaries of life. If the worker not only starves but starves quickly, his work ceases altogether.

Between these two limits wages fluctuate, becoming lower as the customary wants of life of the workers decrease, as the supply of labour-power in the labour market increases, and as the power of resistance on the part of the workers decreases.

Generally wages must, of course, be high enough to keep the worker in a fit state to work, or better said, wages must be so high as to ensure to the capitalist the measure of labour-power needed by him. Wages must hence be high enough to make it possible for the worker not only to maintain himself in a fit state to work but also to reproduce children fit to work.

The economic development shows the tendency—so favourable to the capitalist—of reducing the cost of maintenance of the workers and of thereby decreasing wages.

Skill and strength were in times gone by indispensable to the worker. The period of apprenticeship of the handicraftsman was a very long one, and the cost of his maintenance was considerable. Progress in the division of labour and in machine construction caused special skill and strength in production to become superfluous. This progress makes it possible to replace skilled by unskilled—that is cheaper— labour-power; it makes it also possible to replace the labour of men by that of weak women, and even children. Even in manufacture this tendency was perceptible; but only with the introduction of machinery begins wholesale exploitation of women and of children of tender age, exploitation of the most helpless of the helpless who fall victims to revolting ill-treatment and spoliation. Here we get acquainted with a new characteristic of the machine in the hands of Capital.

The wage-worker who did not belong to the family of the employer had originally to receive in his wages not only the cost of his own maintenance but also that of his family if he were to be in a position to reproduce his species, to regenerate his labour-power. Without this reproduction of labour-power the heirs of the capitalist would find no proletariat to exploit. But if the wife, and, from early childhood, also the children of the worker are in a position to provide for themselves, the wages of the male worker can almost entirely he reduced to the cost of maintenance of his own person without the slightest danger to the reproduction of labour-power. And the labour of women and children has the further advantage of their being less capable of resistance than men. Moreover, through their entering the ranks of labour the supply of labour-power in the labour market is tremendously increased.

The labour of women and children does not only lower the cost of maintaining the worker, it reduces also his power of resistance and increases the supply of labour-power—in short, it has the effect under any of these circumstances of causing the wages of the worker to fall.


The industrial labour of woman in capitalist society means the entire destruction of the worker’s family life without substituting a higher form of family. The capitalist mode of production, in most cases, does not dissolve the individual working-class household, but it deprives it of all its brightness, leaving only its dark side with the waste of woman’s energy and her exclusion from public life. The industrial labour of woman to-day does not mean her relief from household duties, it means adding a fresh burden to those she already bears. But one cannot serve two masters. The household of the worker goes to wreck and ruin if his wife has to assist in earning subsistence for the family ; but what present society puts in place of the individual household and the individual family is miserable refuse: the soup-kitchen and tbe day-nursery in which the leavings of the physical and mental nourishment of the rich are thrown to the lower classes.

Socialism is accused of aiming at the destruction of the family. Well, we know that each particular mode of production has its particular form of household to which corresponds a particular form of family. We do not consider the present form of family to be the last, and expect that a new form of Society will also develop a new form of family. But such expectation is something altogether different to an endeavour to dissolve all family ties. Those who destroy the family —who not merely want to do, but actually DO destroy it before our eyes—are not the Socialists but the capitalists. Many a slave-owner in the past has torn husband from wife, parents from children able to work : but capitalist methods surpass the abominations of slavery ; they tear the suckling from the mother, forcing her to entrust her infant to the care of strangers. And a society in which that occurs daily in hundreds and thousands of cases, a society that has specially founded “charitable institutions patronised by the ‘nobility'” for the purpose of making it easier for the mother to part from her child—such a society has the audacity to reproach us with intending to dissolve the family, because we are convinced that household-work will develop into a special branch of industry, thereby transforming the character of the household and of family life.


Besides being reproached with the intention of dissolving the family we are accused of aiming at community of women. This reproach is as void of foundation as the other. We assert on the contrary that the very opposite of community of women, of sexual compulsion and immorality, namely, ideal love, will form the basis of all marital relations in the Socialist Commonwealth, and such love can generally prevail only in such a state of Society. But what do we see to-day ? The want of resistance on the part of women who have hitherto been confined to their households and have mostly but a faint conception of public life and the power of organisation—is so great, that the capitalist employer dare pay them wages which do not suffice for their sustenance, and incite them to prostitution as a means of augmenting their wages. An increase in the industrial employment of women has everywhere the tendency of causing au increase in prostitution. In the modern state of the fear of God and pious morals there exist entire “flourishing” branches of industry in which the women workers are so badly paid that they would have to starve to death were they not to stoop to prostitution. And the employers declare that just upon these low wages depends the possibility of their successful competition, and that higher wages would rain them.

Prostitution is as old as the contradiction between poverty and riches. But in ages gone by prostitutes occupied in the social scale a position falling between those of beggars and scamps, constituting a luxury in which Society could afford to indulge, and the loss of which would by no means have endangered the very existence of that society. To-day it is not only the women of the loafing proletariat but working women, who are compelled to sell their bodies for money. This selling of their bodies is no longer only a matter of luxury, no, it has become the basis of industrial development. In the capitalist system of production prostitution becomes one of the pillars of Society. The defenders of this society themselves practise community of women, the vice of which they accuse us; of course, community with women of the Proletariat. And this method of community of women has taken root so deeply in present society that its representatives declare prostitution to be a necessity. They cannot conceive that the abolition of the Proletariat must mean the abolition of prostitution, because they cannot possibly conceive a society without community of women.

The community of women of to-day is an invention of the “higher” grades of Society, not of the Proletariat. This community of women is one of the ways of exploiting the Proletariat. It is not Socialism, but its very opposite.

Leave a Reply