Question 1: Dr Marx , you are well known as the author of a book on economics but I think you studied law at university, didn’t you?
Karl Marx: Although I studied jurisprudence, I pursued it as a subject subordinated to philosophy and history. In the year 1842-43 , as editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, I first found myself in the embarrassing position of having to discuss what is known as material interests. The deliberations of the Rhenish Landtag on forest thefts and the division of landed property; the first polemic started by Herr von Schaper, then Oberpresident of the Rhine Province, against the Rheinische Zeitung about the condition of the Moselle peasantry, and finally the debates on free trade and protective tariffs caused me in the first instance to turn my attention to economic questions.
Q 2: What, as a result of the studies you then undertook , would you say is the basis of present-day society?
Marx: “Present-day society” is capitalist society, which exists in all civilised countries, more or less free from mediaeval admixture, more or less modified by the particular historical development of each country , more or less developed.
In present-day society the instruments of labour are the monopoly of the land-owners ( the monopoly of property in land is even the basis of the monopoly of capital ) and the capitalists.
The capitalist mode of production rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of non-workers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal conditions of productions, of labour power .
Q 3: What would you say are the essential features of this capitalist society?
Marx: Capitalist production is distinguished from the outset by two characteristic features.
First. It produces products as commodities. The fact that it produces commodities does not differentiate it from other modes of productions; but rather the fact that being a commodity is the dominant and determining characteristic of its products. This implies, first and foremost, that the labourer himself comes forward merely as a seller of commodities, and thus as a free wage-labourer , so that labour appears in as wage labour. The relation between capital and wage-labour determines the entire character of the mode of production . The principal agents of this mode of production itself , the capitalist and the wage-labourer , are as such merely embodiments , personifications of capital and wage-labour.
The second distinctive feature of the capitalist mode of production is the production of surplus-value as the direct aim and determining motive of production .
Q4: You say that the relation between capital and wage-labour determines the whole character of capitalism but how, first, would you define “capital”?
Marx: Capital is a social relation of production. It is a bourgeois production relation, a production relation of bourgeois society. Capital consists not only of means of subsistence, instruments of labour and raw materials, not only of material products; it consists just a much of exchange values. All the products of which it consists are commodities. Capital is , therefore , not only a sum of material products; it is a sum of commodities , of exchange values, of social magnitudes.
Material wealth transforms itself into capital simply and solely because the worker sells his labour-power in order to live. The articles which are the material conditions of labour, the means of production, and the articles which are the precondition for the survival of the worker himself , the means of subsistence, both become capital only because of the phenomenon of wage-labour. Capital is not a thing , any more than money is a thing. In capital, as in money, certain specific social relations of production between people appear as relations of things to people, or else certain social relations appear as natural properties of things in society. Without a class dependent on wages , the moment individuals confront each other as free persons, there can be no production of surplus-value ;without the production of surplus-value there can be no capitalist production , and hence no capital and no capitalist ! Capital and wage-labour (it is thus we designate the labour of the worker of the worker who sells his own labour-power) only express two aspects of the self-same relationship.
Q5: But in some cases the means of production belong to the State. Does this make any difference to this basic relationship of capitalism?
Marx: The social capital is equal to the sum of the individual capitals (including joint-stock capital and also state capital, in so far as governments employ productive wage-labour in mines, railways, and so on and the function as industrial capitalists). Where the State itself is the capitalist producer, as in the exploitation of mines , woodlands and the like, its product is “commodity” and for this reason possesses the specific character of every other commodity .
Q6: How do you explain the origin of surplus-value?
Marx: The value of a commodity is determined by the total quantity of labour contained in it. But part of that quantity of labour is realised in a value, for which an equivalent has been pain in the form of wages; part of it realised in a value for which no equivalent has been paid. Part of the labour contained in the commodity is paid labour; part is unpaid labour.
The surplus value, or the part of the total value of the commodity in which the surplus labour or unpaid labour of the working man is realised, I call Profit .
It is the employing capitalist who immediately extracts from the labourer this surplus value, whatever part of it he may ultimately be able to keep for himself. Upon this relation , therefore, between the employing capitalist and the wage labourer the whole wages system and the whole present system of production hinges.
Q7: So you are saying that it is through the wages system that the workers are exploited?
Marx: Wages are not what they appear to be, namely , the value, or price, of labour, but only a masked form for the value, or price, of labour power. The wage-worker has permission to work for his own subsistence, that is, to live, only in so far as he works for a certain time gratis for the capitalism (and hence also for the latter’s co-consumer’s of surplus-value); the whole capitalist system of production turns on the increase of this gratis labour by extending the working day or by developing the productivity; consequently the system of wage labour is a system of slavery, and indeed of a slavery which becomes more severe in proportion as the social productive forces of labour develop, whether the worker receives better or worse payment.
Q8: But surely you are not saying that workers should not try to obtain “better payment” while capitalism lasts?
Marx: To clamour for equal or even equitable retribution on the basis of the wages system is the same as to clamour for freedom on the basis of the slavery system. What you think just or equitable is out of the question . The question is: What is necessary and unavoidable with a given system of production?
The periodical resistance on the part of the working man against a reduction of wages, and their periodical attempts at a rise in wages, are inseparable from the wages system, and dictated by the very fact of labour being assimilated to commodities, and therefore subject to the laws regulating the general movement of prices.
The value of labour-power constitutes the conscious and explicit foundation of the trade unions, whose importance for the English working class can scarcely be overestimated. The trade unions aim a nothing less than to prevent the reduction of wages below the level that is traditionally maintained in the various branches of industry.
Trade unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injurious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system.
Q9: Clearly then, the abolition of the wages system is one key feature of the socialist, or as I believe you prefer to call it communist, society which will achieve “the emancipation of the working class”, but what else can be said about it?
Marx: The condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class. The working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society.
Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them.
There can therefore be nothing more erroneous and absurd than to postulate the control by the united individuals of their total production, on the basis of exchange value, of money . The private exchange of all products of labour, all activities and all wealth stands in antithesis to free exchange among individuals who are associated on the basis of common appropriation and control of the means of production.
If we were to consider a communist society in place of a capitalist one, then money capital would immediately be done away with .
Q10: So you are saying that the working class can only emancipate themselves by establishing a classless , stateless, and moneyless society , but , with regard to this last point, you yourself are on record as mentioning “labour-time vouchers” as a possible means of distributing consumer goods in the early stages of communist society. Is there not a contradiction here?
Marx: Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one.
With collective production, money capital is completely dispensed with. The society distributes labour-power and means of production between the various branches of industry. There is no reason why the producers should not receive paper tokens permitting them to withdraw an amount corresponding to their labour time from the social consumption stocks. But these tokens are not money; they do not circulate .
The certificate of labour is merely evidence of the part taken by the individual in the common labour , and of his claim to a certain portion of the common product which has been set aside for consumption.
Q11: But you are not claiming, are you, that such “tickets” or “certificates” would be a permanent or even an essential feature of a future classless society?
Marx: What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.
In a higher phase of communist of communist society , after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and herewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, have vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want ; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability , to each according to his needs!
The Period of Revolution
Q12: The continuing development of the forces of production over the last hundred or so years means that communist society could now proceed almost immediately to this stage of free access. But I want to move on to ask you about how you see the change-over from capitalist to socialist. Or communist, society taking place.
Marx: The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class , to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, of the proletariat organised as the ruling class , and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.
Q13: Wait a minute. Let me stop you there. What exactly do you mean by the phrase “centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, of the proletariat organised as the working class”? In a previous reply you told us that socialism was a society without a State .
Marx: When [ the proletariat] attains government power its enemies and the old organisation of society has not yet vanished.
The proletariat still acts, during the period of the struggle for the overthrow of the old society, on the basis of that old society, and hence also still moves within political forms which more or less belong to it. It has not yet , during this period of struggle, attained its final constitution, and employs means for its liberation which this liberation fall aside.
It can however only use such economic means as abolish its own character as salariat, hence as a class. With its complete victory its own rule thus ends . As its class character has disappeared.
When , in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the public power will lose its political character. In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms , we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
Q14: You are saying that to establish a classless , stateless society the working class has first to organise to gain control of political power – “win the battle of democracy”, as you put it – and use it to expropriate the capitalist class. This seems reasonable enough, even if today it could again be said that this period of revolution could be passed through very quickly precisely because the centralisation and development of the means of production has now reached such a high degree. But how do you see the working class winning political power , peaceably or violently.
Marx: The workers will have to seize political power one day in order to construct the new organisation of labour; they will have to overthrow the old politics which bolster up the old institutions.
We do not claim, however, that the road leading to this goal is the same everywhere. We know that heed must be paid to institutions, customs and traditions of various countries, and we do not deny that there are countries , such as America and England, where the workers may attain their goal by peaceful means. That being the case , we must recognise that in most continental countries the lever of the revolution will have to be force.
Q15: Today of course “most continental countries” have adopted the same political forms as America and Britain , but in any event won’t socialism or communism, have to be a world system?
Marx: United action of the leading civilised countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.
Empirically, communism is only possible as an act of the dominant people “all at once” and simultaneously , which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with communism. Moreover, the mass of propertyless workers presupposes the world market through competition. The proletariat can thus only exist world-historically, just as communism, its activity, can only have a “world-historical” existence.
Causes of Crises
Q16: Can we now perhaps turn to some current issues that are of immediate concern to people today. First of all, the present slump where we hear about there being over-production of steel, cars, food and other goods .
Marx: The word “over-production” in itself leads to error . So long as the most urgent needs of a large part of society are not satisfied. Or only the most immediate needs are satisfied, there can of course be absolutely no talk of an over-production of products – in the sense that the amount of products is excessive in relation to the need for them . On the contrary, it must be said that on the basis of capitalist production, there is constant under-production in this sense. The limits to production are set by the profit of the capitalist and in no way by the needs of the producers But over-production of products and over-production of commodities are two entirely different things.
Q17: Yes, that’s clear enough, but what do you think of the proposal put forward for instance by the Labour Party that the way out of the crisis is to increase spending.
Marx: The popular ascription of stagnation in the processes of production and circulation to an insufficiency of the circulating medium is a delusion.
It is pure tautology to say that crises are provoked by a lack of effective demand or effective consumption. The capitalist system does not recognise any forms of consumer other than those who can pay, if we exclude the consumption of paupers and swindlers. The fact that commodities are unsaleable means no more than that no effective buyers have been found for them, no consumers (no matter whether the commodities are ultimately sold to meet the needs of productive or individual consumption). If the attempt is made to give this tautology the semblance of greater profundity, by the statement that the working class receives too small a portion of its own product, and that the evil would be remedied if it received a bigger share, if its wages rose, we need only note that crises are always prepared by a period in which wages generally rise, and the working class actually does receive a greater share in the part of the annual product destined for consumption. From the standpoint of these advocates of sound and “simple” (!) common sense, such periods should rather avert the crisis. It thus appears that capitalist production involves certain conditions independent of people’s good or bad intentions, which permit the relative prosperity of the working class only temporarily, and moreover always the harbinger of crisis.
Q18: What about the other aspects of crisis such as unemployment and falling real wages?
Marx: Capitalistic production moves through certain periodical cycles. It moves through a state of quiescence , growing animation, prosperity, overtrade, crisis and stagnation. The market prices of commodities, and the market rates of profits, follow these phases, now sinking below their average, now rising above them.
Well! During the phase of sinking market prices and the phases of crisis and stagnation, the working man, if not thrown out of employment altogether, is sure to have his wages lowered.
A surplus population of workers is a condition for the existence of the capitalist mode of production. It forms a disposable industrial reserve army, which belongs to capital just as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost.
Capitalist production can by no means content itself with the quantity of disposable labour power which the natural increase of population yields . It requires for its unrestricted activity an industrial reserve army which is independent of these natural limits .
Taking them as a whole, the general movements of wages are exclusively regulated by the expansion and contraction of the industrial reserve army, and this in turn corresponds to the periodical alternations of the industrial cycle.
Q19: Lets now turn to the other big economic issue , inflation. What do you see as its cause and consequences?
Marx: Here we are concerned only with inconvertible paper money issued by the State and given forced currency.
Pieces of paper on which money-names are printed, such as £1, £5, are thrown into the circulation process from outside by the State. In so far as they actually circulate in place of the same amount of gold, their movement is simply a reflection of the laws of monetary circulation itself. A law peculiar to the circulation of paper money can only spring up from the proportion in which that money represents gold. In simple terms the law referred to is as follows: the issue of paper money must be restricted to the quantity of gold (or silver) which would actually be in circulation, and which is represented symbolically by the paper money.
If the paper money exceeds its proper limit – the amount in gold coins of the same denomination which could have been in circulation – then, quite apart from the danger of becoming universally discredited, it will still represent within the world of commodities only that quantity of gold which is fixed by its immanent laws. No greater quantity is capable of being represented. If the quantity of paper money represents twice the amount of gold available , then in practice £1 will be the money-name not of ¼ of an ounce of gold but of 1/8 of an ounce. The effect is the same as if an alteration had taken place in the function of gold as the standard of prices. The values previously expressed by the price of £1 would now be expressed by the price of £2 .
In such a case nothing would have changed, either in the productive powers of labour, or in supply or demand, or in values. Nothing could have changed except the money names of those values. To say that in such a case the workingman ought not to insist upon a proportionate rise of wages, is to say that he must be content to be paid in names, instead of things. All past history proves that whenever such a depreciation of money occurs, the capitalists are on the alert to seize this opportunity for defrauding the workingman.
Q20: What do you think of the idea of cutting taxes as a way of trying to improve the workers’ position under capitalism?
Marx: If all taxes which bear on the working class were abolished root and branch, the necessary consequence would be the reduction of wages by the whole amount of taxes which goes into them. Either the employers’ profit would rise as a direct consequence by the same quantity , or else no more than an alteration in the form of tax-collecting would have taken place. Instead of the present system, whereby the capitalist also advances, as part of the wage, the taxes which the worker has to pay, he [ the capitalist ] would no longer pay them in this roundabout way, but directly to the State.
Q21: Finally , there is a growing concern these days about pollution and the environment. Could you say something on this .
Marx: The capitalist mode of production completes the disintegration of the primitive familial union which bound agriculture and manufacture when they were both at an undeveloped and child-like stage. But at the same time it creates the material conditions for a new and higher synthesis , a union of agriculture and industry on the basis of the forms that have developed during the period of their antagonistic isolation. Capitalist production collects the population together in great centres , and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing preponderance. This has two results. On the one hand it concentrates the historic motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil. Thus it destroys at the same time the physical health of the urban worker, and the intellectual life of the rural worker. But by destroying the circumstances surrounding that metabolism, which originated in a merely natural and spontaneous fashion , it compels its systematic restoration as a regulative law of social production, and in a form adequate to the full development of the human race.
Moreover , all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility.
Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker.
Q22: Would you like to address a special message to our readers?
Marx: It is the working millions of Great Britain who first have laid down the real basis of a new society – modern industry , which transformed the destructive agencies of nature into the productive power of man. The English working classes, with invincible energies , by the sweat of their brows and brains, have called to life the material means of ennobling labour itself, and of multiplying its fruits in such a degree as to make general abundance possible. By creating the inexhaustible productive powers of modern industry they have fulfilled the first condition of the emancipation of Labour. They have now to realise its other condition. They have to free those wealth – producing powers from the infamous shackles of monopoly, and subject them to the joint control of the producers, who, till now , allowed the very product of their hands to turn against them and transformed into as many instruments of their own subjugation.
The English working men are the first-born sons of modern industry. They will then, certainly, not be the last in aiding the social revolution prepared by that industry, a revolution, which means the emancipation of their own class all over the world, which is as universal as capital-rule and wage-slavery.
WSM: Thank you Dr Marx
A Note on Sources
Every word in Marx’s replies is taken from his actual writings, the only changes being to leave out , in some cases, introductory phrases or conjunctions. Nor have we indicated that we are sometimes quoting from different writings in the same reply.
Q1 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy Lawrence and Wishart, 1971, p19-20
Q2 Three separate passages from the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Progress Publishers, 1971, p 25 , p13 , and p18 respectively
Q3 Capital Vol 3 , FLPH, 1959, p 857-8
Q4 Wage Labour and Capital M-E Selected Works , Vol 1, 1958, p90
Results of the Immediate Process of Production, appendix to Penguin Vol 1 of Capital, 1976 p1005-6
Q5 Capital Vol 2, Penguin, 1978 p177
Comments on Adolph Wagner’s Lehrbuch , BICO . 1971, p22
Q6 Three separate passages from Value, Price and Profit, Peking, 1969, p54, 55 and 56
Q7 Critique of the Gotha Programme p22-3
Q8 First two and fourth paragraphs from Value Price and Profit, p 46, p71, and 78-9. Third paragraph from Results , p1069
Q9 The Poverty of Philosophy FLPH,1956 p196-7, Critique of the Gotha Programme, p16 Grundisse , Pelican, 1973, p158-9
Q10 Critique of the Gotha Programme p18, Capital Vol 2 , p434 ,Capital Vol 1 p188-9 footnote
Q11 Critique of the Gotha Programme, p16 and p17-18
Q12 Manifesto of the Communist Party, FLPH ,1954 , p79-80
Q13 First three paragraphs from Conspectus of Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy, The 1st International and After , Penguin, 1974 p 332, 338, and 335. The fourth paragraph from the Communist Manifesto p81 and p82 [re-translated from original German]
Q14 Speech at the Hague Congress, The 1st International p324
Q15 Communist Manifesto, p77
Q16 Theories of Surplus Value , Pt2 , Progress Pub., 1968, p527
Q17 Capital ,Vol 1, p218 , footnote, Capital, Vol 2 , p486-7
Q18 The first two paragraphs from Value , Price and Profit, p69, the other three paragraphs from Capital Vol 1, p784 , p788, p790,
Q19 First three paragraphs from Capital Vol 1, p224-5 . Last paragraph Value, Price and Profit, p65-66
Q20 Moralising Criticism and Critical Morality ,Collected Works, Vol 6 Lawrence and Wishart,1976, p329
Q21 Capital, Vol 1 p637-8
Q22 Letter to the Labour Parliament, Articles On Britain , Progress Pub., 1975 , p215
Speech at the anniversary of the “Peoples Paper”, Articles On Britain, p261
From the Socialist Standard, March 1983