Notes on Surplus Value and Labor Power




by Jan Makandal

Much debate on the left is based on an eclectic usage of concepts such as capital, labor power and surplus value. This eclectic usage allows a totally descriptive approach, leading to a very simplistic analysis that is unable to consolidate further in the elaboration of previous revolutionary militants, in particular Marx. This approach is incapable with deepening these concepts. Instead it causes a reverse effect of reducing these concepts to simple questions of accounting and numbers, and even worse, reducing these theories/concepts (for example the theory of surplus value and all its forms such as exploitation) to a simple theory of profit. This is exactly what Marx fought against from Ricardo, a bourgeois theorist—the tendency to constantly define surplus value and the process of capitalization of surplus value as a simple form of making a profit.

This approach, of reducing surplus value and the process of the capitalization of SV to a simple act of profit, is allowing a double opportunist tendency by many who claim to be Marxist, and objectively creates the conditions for developing opportunism and populism (which finally degenerate into revisionism, the supreme stage of opportunism). This double opportunist tendency consists of:

A] An objectivist tendency that will lead to a “re-composition” that is attempting to explain new phenomena in the actual current stage of development of capitalism/imperialism (hence the actual conditions of proletarian revolution), in both social formations dominated by imperialism and in imperialist social formations. This tendency even questions the role of the proletariat, or reduces it to a simple “important role,” or asks whether or not communists (proletarian revolutionaries) should be involved in wage struggles.

This tendency can also lead to a dangerous path by defining by a simple technique (sometimes mathematical technique) and by using bourgeois concepts, the theoretical conception of the bourgeoisie (which we did find in previous experiences of socialist constructions such as: growth, balance and planning). This objectivist tendency led many organizations to identify a contradictory motion internal to capitalism (such as socialized production versus anarchy in production) to be part of one aspect of a fundamental contradiction. This motion is internal to capitalism. It is a natural aspect of capitalism. This natural contradictory aspect is currently happening in capitalism under the hegemony and leadership of finance capital, and could be controlled by good capitalist planning, balance and growth.

B] A subjectivist tendency that totally renounces Marxism as a scientific theory or as a scientific autonomous theory. Marxist theory/proletarian theory is not a variant of an anti economic tradition. It is not simply to be reduced to a critique of political economy. Proletarian theory is a constant struggle, with the fundamental task of appropriating all forms of the concentration of capital, and with proletarian revolution to finally consummate that task.

Any definition of capitalism, socialism or even of feudalism can’t be simply based on a system of production. This favors the ideas of purely economic laws. To base our analysis only on a simple system of production will lead to schematic theory of evolution, limiting our capacity. This is a fundamental error that “Third Worldists” are committing. It is important to analyze these systems of production by their modes of production. The analysis of the mode of production can’t be reduced to a simple system of production. We will not find a history in the systems of production. The concept of the mode of production is the dialectical analysis of their trends and contradictions. The comparison often made between the workers in dominated social formations and workers in imperialist social formations is not allowing us to appropriate these social formations. And because of that, it is taking us to an anti-communist position instead of looking at the international unity of the working class.

If workers in some imperialist social formations are making more than the value of their labor power, as some assert, then we are no longer in a capitalist relations. It will require a new definition of that relation, and a new concept to identify that new relation. This statement is simply based on looking at the relations as a simple matter of accounting. Capital is not an economic quantity.

We need to analyze the organic relation of capital to waged labor. This can’t be based on a simple question of numbers, even if in some instances because of the relations of forces we have to fight for wages, for a minimum wage. But those fights for proletarian militants are not only for numbers—they are to address that organic relation of capital to wage labor. We need to analyze all the forms of that organic relation, its specific forms as it is being developed and constructed.

This requires that we deepen our interpretation of capital. We don’t limit our definition of capital to a simple system of production. Capital is not a simple monetary sum, a quantity of the means of production, a simple form of expropriated raw material. Capital is more than that. CAPITAL IS A SOCIAL PROCESS OF THE PRODUCTION OF GOODS, IN WHICH, ACCORDING TO THE LEVEL OF THE SOCIAL FORMATION (DOMINATED OR IMPERIALIST), WAGED LABOR APPEARS TO FACE CAPITAL FIRST AS A FACTOR OF PRODUCTION, AND AMONG OTHER FACTORS TURNS INTO CONSTITUTING THE ESSENTIAL INTERNAL DETERMINATION OF THE PRODUCTION OF CAPITAL.

The development of capital is commandeered by the development of waged labor. The history of capital is commandeered by the forms and conditions of waged labor. THE PROCESS OF DISPARITION (DISAPPEARANCE) OF CAPITAL IS COMMANDEERED BY THE PROCESS OF DISPARITION OF WAGED LABOR.

A simple clarification is needed. Not all wage earners are wage labor. Not all working people are workers. Wage labor requires the production of new value. All wage earners are working people (a social category). Wage labor is also part of the working people/laborer category, but because of the relation to capital in the production of new value, they are not simply “an important force” but they are the FUNDAMENTAL force, capable of leading all laborers and uniting them in the struggle against capital.


Any production of Surplus Value requires the accounting of value and of the differences of value. But this accounting is very limited, and hides what is essential. SV is not simply an amount, and to base any analysis on a comparison of amounts is another economist approach. A surplus exists (even if it is different) in any mode of production that has a sufficient productivity of work. But only under capitalism, (even if a dominated mode of production), does the productivity of labor necessarily takes the form of value. The fact that this surplus serves the accumulation of the means of production is a characteristic only of capitalism.

SV is not a simple surplus of goods or of values, but it is the form this social process takes under capitalism. The principal characteristic of SV is therefore the mode wherein this surplus is being produced. It is only as an effect of this mode that we will be able to find the quantitative explanation.

Another characteristic of the production of the surplus that has a value under capitalism is that this surplus is not exercising a constraint on work, outside of the process of production, as we have observed in other modes of production [feudalism/slavery], but instead is internal to the process of production. The labor power is directly incorporated, as a merchandise, into the process of production, and becomes internal to the process of production.

The social form of production of capitalism is that the entire process of capitalist production is already capitalized. And the final product is also capitalized. This capitalization is realized when the product is sold/exchange for money.

The value of goods produced by capital includes 3 aspects:

1] the value that is correspondent to the means of production
2] The value of the labor power
3] the value of the surplus

I will only elaborate on the value of the labor power, since it is more connected to the debate. The value of the labor power is consumed/ destroyed/ annihilated in the labor process. So all the theories of the parasitism of the working class are absurd, even if there does exist an aristocracy fraction of the working class. All the means of production together, in the form of capital, are the means of that destruction of labor power.

And at the same time, the labor power is creating new value. This new value that comes from the labor power is spent under its capitalist form (meaning as productive consummation of the means of production already capitalized), as it is subdivided into two fractions: one that is replacing the value of the labor power, and the other that constitutes SV. The subdivision of the value of labor power [variable capital] and surplus value is a consequence of class struggle, and of the capitalist organization of capitalism’s process of production. It is determined by class struggle and the relation of forces.

Many economists, even those who pretend to be Marxist, invent a fundamental difference between two distinct social processes: the constitution of value and the production of SV. They are not two distinct social processes, since all the initial factors of production are already capitalized in the form of merchandise, and as forms of merchandise they have a value. It the capitalist process of production reproduces value and determines the development of its form, then the production of SV is, as well, a constitution of value. The usage of the labor power is incorporated into capital twice: in the conservation of constant capital [conserving value] and in the enlargement of variable capital [ creation of value]. This is the mechanism of over-exploitation and overproduction.

All the secrets of capitalist production consist of the contradictory unity that makes (in permanence) the process of over exploitation and of surplus and of maximum over exploitation the necessary condition for labor/work.: THEREFORE NO CAPITALIST EXPLOITATION WITHOUT THE TENDENCY OF OVER-EXPLOITATION. This is the global general rule of the condition of capital accumulation. Even if some workers get some crumbs in order to pacify them, this pacification is not exempt from this general rule of engagement.

SV is not simply a form of exploitation among others, but the organic unity of all forms of exploitation. It is class struggle in the process of production… This is the reason proletarian militants are to be engaged in the struggle for wages.