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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991) Socialist Education Series - Marx: Exploitation and Robbery


Marx and Engels sometimes used emotive words in their description of exploitation. For example, Marx stated:

“The greater part of the yearly accruing surplus product, embezzled, because abstracted without return of an equivalent, from the English labourer…”
(CAPITAL vol. 1 p. 670, Kerr ed.).

The Kerr translation was by Moore and Aveling and was edited by Engels. The word used in the German edition from which it was translated, was entwandt (past tense on entwaden).

CASSELS German dictionary gives as the meaning of entwenden:

“to pilfer, to purloin, to steal, to embezzle”.

Eden and Cedar Paul in their new 1928 translation avoided the word embezzle.

They had Marx saying:

“Surplus product which is taken away from the English worker without any equivalent”
(ALLEN AND UNWIN edition page 673).

It seems to be certain that Marx chose the word “embezzle” and that Moore, Aveling and Engels approved it. Eden and Cedar Paul were going outside their responsibility as translators in departing from it. The Pauls may however have felt they had justification (see review of the new translation in the SOCIALIST STANDARD March 1929).

Merely a literary flourish

What does the word “embezzle” amount to anyway? It was a literary flourish just as Marx and Engels finished the first section of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO with the words “What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable”. Metaphors and analogies are only approximations to the truth.

Nobody supposes that Marx, Engels, Moore and Aveling considered exploitation to be in conflict with the criminal law just as the author’s of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO believed in some form of fatalism or determinism when the agents of historical change had been identified as the working class with shovels in hand.

Presumably it gave Marx pleasure to suggest that exploitation is the kind of action which, if it occurred between capitalists, would be made illegal. (Though exploitation does not much resemble the dictionary definition of embezzlement:- “Make fraudlent use of money etc. entrusted to one’s charge”).

It cannot seriously be believed that Marx in general wanted us to regard the class actions of the capitalists as tantamount to crimes, for which therefore they are personally responsible.

He dealt with this question in the 1867 Preface to CAPITAL:

“I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense coleur de rose. But here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular classes – relations and class-interests. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them”.

Legal Terms and Economic Terms

Robbery, embezzlement etc, are legal terms not economic terms. “Exploitation” is an economic term used and described by Marx. It is also a trade union term (supported by dictionary definitions) to mean something different from what Marx meant.

For Unions it means excessive exploitation only in the form of long hours and low pay. Exploitation in Marx’s meaning is nowhere illegal. There is no Act under which employing workers for profit is itself illegal.

But some exploitation in the trade union sense of the term is illegal; using under age employees, breaking terms and agreement of the minimum 48 hour week and paying workers less than the minimum wage.

The SPGB’s Declaration of Principles

The Party’s OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES do not contain any such word as “embezzlement” and “robbery”.

Clause 8 refers to the present system “which deprives them (workers) of the fruit of their labour”. This is a simple statement of fact as things are under capitalism. It does not say that the workers are ”robbed” of the fruits of their labour.

The workers do not at any stage own the fruits of their labour and therefore cannot be “robbed” in the only legitimate, legal meaning of the word. But the workers do “hold” the fruits of their labour in the course of production, and can be regarded as being “deprived” of them.

The SPGB's Object

THE DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES is mostly concerned with describing the structure of capitalism and the class relationships of capitalism.

It can be said that all of this helps to stir the workers into action to establish Socialism.

But our OBJECT, Socialism, is something separate. It involves common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. Clause 4 envisages “the emancipation of all Mankind”.

Our object is not “the world for the workers”, nor that the workers shall have “the full fruits of their labour”.

In Socialist society, “the workers” will not receive the full fruits of their labour for reasons Marx pointed out in the CRITIQUEOF THE GOTHA PROGRAMME. The young, the old and the sick will have free access to the products of the workers, like the workers themselves.

And if some individuals who are able to work refuse to do so they can’t be prevented from having “free access” like everybody else (there will be no coercive force to deter them).

Several times in early SOCIALIST STANDARD’s the biblical injunction was quoted with approval: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat”.

No Socialists think like that today.

There is nothing in our DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES to support the idea that we need to look at the behaviour of the capitalist class in exploiting the working class, to justify ourselves in establishing Socialism.

What made Socialist free access practicable was the very large increase in productivity brought about by capitalism and that “all social functions of the capitalists are now performed by salaried employees”

"Value for Value"

There seems to be some idea that giving value for value has some sort of non-economic significance.

Marx did indeed make a point of saying that the capitalist can buy labour-power at its value and still exploit the workers and get surplus-value.

But he did not then say that capitalism buying at value or above value is more defensible than capitalism paying less than value. He said “abolish the wages system” along with the whole capitalist system of buying and selling commodities for profit.

What is more, it is a section of the capitalist class who, if they thought about it, suffer the greatest “deprivation” in not getting value for value in the sale of their commodities.

Marx showed that commodities never, except by accident, sell at value or oscillate about value.

Some sell permanently above and other permanently below value.

So some capitalists are selling below value, and having to buy at least some of their purchases from the other capitalists who are selling above value. A result is brought about by the trend to an average rate of profit.

Is this “robbery”, “embezzlement” etc? Not for Marx. It is simply the way capitalism operates in accordance with its structure and development.

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