Marx and "immiseration"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Jun 12 19:26:47 MDT 2000

(Sometimes it seems that no question gets more attention on PEN-L than
whether Marxism is based on a concept of "immiseration" of the
working-class. I have never seen a more lucid contribution to this
discussion than the one given by Harry Braverman in the course of a May
1958 article in the American Socialist titled "Marx in the Modern World."
It is given as in the context of a reply to John Strachey, the English
Labor Party official who had been in the British CP during the 1930s.
Strachey argued in "Contemporary Capitalism" that Marx not only defended a
theory of "immiseration" but had been proven wrong.)

BUT, as I pointed out earlier, if it is hard to prove a relative gain for
labor as compared with capital, there is no doubt at all that labor, in the
advanced capitalist countries, has enjoyed a great rise in living standards
over past century. It is this fact more than any other which has inspired
the disputes among socialists, which have been recurring for more than half
a century, about Marx’s so-called "law of increasing misery" and
"subsistence" wage theory. The background for these disputes is as follows:
Marx concluded the first volume of his major work with a five-chapter
treatise on the accumulation of capital where he fits together the simpler
elements he had abstracted earlier. Within this part, there is a chapter
called "General Law of Capitalist Accumulation," and within chapter there
is formulated a law of polarization of wealth, increase of capital balanced
by increase of misery, which the controversial "theory of increasing
misery" been lifted. Friend and foe alike have generally interpreted this
as a theory that wages must tend to fall, and disputed it accordingly.

Marx did at one time clearly state a "law" that wages tend to fall, in his
series of 1847 lectures published age as "Wage Labor and Capital." Here he
gave the opinion as the worker loses his specialized craft skills,
competition between workers would force wage rates to decline. Within a few
years, however, he was rejecting this generalization, and condemning
Lassalle for accepting the  "iron law of wages" which Ricardo had taken
over from Malthus. When he sat down, in the fullness of developed thought,
to discuss the fate of the worker in modern capitalist industry, in the
chapter on capitalist accumulation mentioned above, he appeared to exclude
falling wages from the galaxy of evils which he predicted, saying: "The
result is that, in proportion as capital accumulates, the condition of the
worker, be his wages high or low, necessarily grows worse:

Marx’s careful reservation, which I have italicized above, has quite
naturally escaped wide notice, as the pounding of his artillery on the
theme of "growing misery" drowned it out. It must strike us today, after we
have seen to what extent real wages can rise, as unnecessarily grudging.
But, grudging though it may have been, his concern with this point of his
theory was real enough, as was shown in 1875, several years after the
publication of "Capital," when he turned the rough side of his tongue on
the program elaborated by the German Social Democrats at the Gotha
congress. Lassalle’s followers had inserted therein the iron law of wages."
Marx called this "a truly revolting retrogression." He again repeats that
his condemnation of "wage slavery" does not depend on whether the laborer’s
pay is "better or worse," and adds: "It is just as if among slaves who had
at last penetrated the mystery of slavery, and had risen in rebellion, a
slave, imbued with superannuated notions, inscribed on the program of the
rebellion: ‘Slavery must be abolished, because under the system of slavery
the slaves’ food can never exceed a certain low maximum’

This anxiety that his theory not be hinged to any particular level of wages
shown by Marx was probably intensified by the rise in real wages which
could be observed in his own lifetime.

On the purely theoretical level, Marx’s analysis was built of ratios,
comparisons, and proportions, not absolutes. The massive development in the
general theory of capitalist accumulation is based entirely upon the
relationship between paid and unpaid labor. It is from this that Marx
develops his economic conclusions, and most important of all, it is from
this that he draws the class structure of his day—the "polarization of
wealth and poverty" at the core of his thought.

NONE of this is intended to demonstrate that Marx’s analysis was either
flawless or clairvoyant. On the contrary, it suffers badly from the
obsolescence which attacks even the best of theories when they do not get
the corrections called for by the passage of time and events. Marx cast the
general law of capital accumulation in a rhetoric which was appropriate to
thc conditions of his day. In our day, as Strachey rightly maintains, many
of these things are quite different. Engels, towards the end of his life,
was to recognize that the capitalist system had "outgrown the juvenile
state of exploitation described by me" fifty years previous, and expressed
the hope that the workers would be more able to concentrate on opposing
"the capitalist system itself," instead of merely specific early
conditions. Today, we need that recognition far more than Engels was able
to imagine.

While the relationships between paid and upaid labor still obtain, of the
three major ways that Marx mentioned for an increase in unpaid labor—longer
working day, increasing productivity, and increased intensity of exertion—
it is chiefly the second which has come into play. The unions had a lot to
do with this, as Strachey says, but regardless of the reason, increased
profit has been extracted chiefly by increased productivity, thus allowing
a great and unforeseen rise in wage levels, even while maintaining roughly
similar proportions of paid and unpaid labor.

In a few countries at least, the standard of life of the working class has
consequently been raised and is for long periods regularized. It is well
above that of the classes it continues to supplant. The transformation of
impoverished farmers into wage workers is no longer taken as prima facie
evidence of irnrniseration. The brutalizing process by which the working
class was formed has receded into history. Thus the class structure which
Marx described with bitter intensity in his own day exists today in greatly
altered conditions, and no attempt at presenting the general law of
capitalist accumulation in traditional Marxist rhetoric can get across to
the average person, who is, in a way, the best judge of the matter.

Judged in the light of Marx’s total analysis and not in the form of a
much-debated fragment of a paragraph, the trouble is not "original error
but uncorrected obsolescence," to borrow the phrase of an economist from
another school. To defend Marx’s description of the conditions which this
law brought about in his own day as a true description of present
conditions would be nothing less than dogmatism raised to frenzy. But the
operation of this law creates problems of a new kind in our own era. There
is no more powerful way of analyzing the movement of a capitalist economy
than the working out of a relationship between the accumulation of capital
and the demand for labor, which is the way Marx attacked the problem. In
recent years, orthodox economics has been able to regain some usefulness
only by, through Keynes, approximating this method of analysis, although in
a diluted and superficial form. There is no way of getting around the fact
that, though standards of life have risen and the entire economy has moved
to a higher plateau, it is Marx’s "law of motion" of capitalism which
explains most profoundly the system’s repeated difficulties, and that the
greatest of these crises came, not in Marx’s day, but in our own.

IF we apply this same approach to Marx’s "subsistence wage" theory, we get
much the same result. Marx had advised that wages fluctuate around a level
sufficient to maintain, perpetuate, and train a working class. Strachey
points out that real wages of British workers have doubled since Marx’s
day, and more than tripled in America; he therefore rejects the theory,
calling it Marx's "original error" which drove "a great hole" into his
entire system. [Earl] Browder draws Strachey’s view out to its most
explicit, and, using simple arithmetic, finds that the American worker is
now getting at least six times a "subsistence" wage. The reasoning: As Marx
called the wage of British mid-nineteenth century worker "subsistence," and
as the American worker is today getting, according to figures, more than
six times that amount in real wages, the pay of the American worker is five
parts "social increment" over and above subsistence. (Fortunately, Browder
did not use the pay of the Chinese coolie at time of the Opium Wars as his
base, or we should find ourselves getting a pay a thousand times above

The fact that all the budgets calculated, by U.S. government agencies or
universities, to provide a "minimum of health and decency" are, year by
year, regularly above the average of labor wages ought to warn us there is
thing faulty about the approach. Obviously, no working-class family can
manage any kind of subsistence at all on one-sixth the present average
wage, which would only be some $12-$13 a week. Marx took care of the by
explaining that "subsistence" varies with the place and the time, as wages
include, "in contradistinction to value of other commodities, a historical
and moral factor." Obviously then, the term "subsistence" was not intended
to convey any single level of wages, nor was it technically bound up with
any special emotional content.

The point here is not to go over elementary tenets of Marx’s economics, but
to recall once more that the difficulties of the theory stem not from
"original error but uncorrected obsolescence." Unquestionably, a class on
the present level of the American workers cannot be expected to take
literally the words of the traditional socialist anthem: "Arise, ye
prisoners of starvation." In that sense Marxism requires a modernization to
suit the present world; Strachey is absolutely right in that general claim.
But can we throw away economic concepts without which it is impossible to
understand our present system? No theory of wages can be accurate if it
excludes Marx's concept, regardless what words are used to encompass it,
because it is the only way in which the division of society into classes,
one of which accumulates while the other returns each morning to the
factory or office to renew the terms of its existence, can be explained.
start to play at this late date with the notion that "wages have climbed to
six times subsistence," which is to say that the worker can earn in his
first eight years of labor enough to support his family for an entire 48
even without investments, we will turn the world of capitalism into an
inexplicable mystery.

In the foregoing discussion, no attempt has been made to deal with the
subject as a whole. One or two specific current quarrels, as they have come
up in the European controversy described at the start of this article, have
been considered in an effort to sketch out an approach to the problems of
socialism in the advanced capitalist countries. Much discussion of a more
comprehensive nature is plainly needed. Here there remains space only to
outline the dimensions of the problem, which appear to me as follows:

All the above difficulties in Marxism obviously stem from the fact that the
capitalist system has persisted, and restabilized itself repeatedly, over a
much longer period than had been expected. The great expansion in labor
productivity which has created such new and different conditions was not
unexpected in the Marxian economic structure, a structure which, as no
other before or since, focused on the technological revolutions which
capitalism is forced to work continuously as a condition of its existence.
What was unexpected was capitalism’s length of life and its ability to
expand. Marx and the movement he shaped operated on the basis of imminent
crisis. If he never gave thought to the kind of living standard inherent in
a capitalism that would continue to revolutionize science and industry for
another hundred years, that was because he thought he was dealing with a
system that was rapidly approaching its Armageddon. He thought the social
wars that would usher in socialism would take place under the social
conditions he saw around him. In that sense, the economic obsolescence we
can easily find in him today is of a piece with his errors of political

Now we live in a day and age where socialism, while clearly on the order of
the historical day, will shape up under conditions far different from those
under which the socialist movement was originally given its stamp.

Every movement develops its own style, rhetoric, way of making itself
heard. Socialism was cradled in the intolerable conditions of the primitive
working class, and flamed with the barricades spirit of the revolutions of
1848 into which it was launched at its infancy. Instead of evolving with
changed conditions, this tone and approach survived in frozen rigidity
which sometimes even outbid Marx. One of the main reasons was that the
first of the long-awaited revolutions broke out in a country whose
condition was more appropriate to the Europe of the early nineteenth
century than the early twentieth, and whose social struggles reflected that
fact. Then, to compound the difficulty, that revolution got ossified and
bureaucratized at the top, and insisted on imposing its every prejudice and
dogma on the world socialist movement. The result was a Communist
formation, the recognized repository of "Marxism," with a Zeitgeist from
another century and a paralyzed mentality. Is it any wonder that the work
of digging out Marxism and restoring it to usable form is so difficult?

If the thought is right that the trouble lies not in original error but
uncorrected obsolescence, then the job is not to see where "Marx was wrong"
so much as to make a fresh application of his theory to the world around us
as it is, not as it once was. To borrow a comparison from the field of
physics, we need socialist Faradays and Maxwells or if we are lucky,
Einsteins and Plancks, not people who confine themselves to knocking Isaac

Louis Proyect
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