“Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself.”
Marx, Capital, Book I, “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation”
1. “Bourgeois reformists, who are echoed by certain opportunists among the Social-Democrats, assert that there is no impoverishment of the masses taking place in capitalist society. ‘The Theory of impoverishment’ is wrong, they say, for the standard of living of the masses is improving, if slowly, and the gulf between the haves and have-nots is narrowing, not widening. The falsity of such assertions has lately been revealed to the masses more and more clearly. The cost of living is rising. Wages, even with the most stubborn and most successful strike movement, are increasing much more slowly than the necessary expenditure of labour power. And side by side with this, the wealth of the capitalists is increasing at a dizzy rate..
(…)Food, clothing, fuel and rent have all become more expensive. The worker is becoming impoverished absolutely, i.e., he is actually becoming poorer than before; he is compelled to live worse, to eat worse, to suffer hunger more, and to live in basements and attics.
(…) But the relative impoverishment of the workers. i.e., the diminution of their share in the national income, is still striking. The workers’ comparative share in capitalist society. which is fast growing rich, is dwindling because the millionaires are becoming ever richer.
(…)Wealth in capitalist society is growing at an incredible rate – side by side with the impoverishment of the mass of the workers. “
Does this so concise and true analysis of what immediately seems before our eyes the present living condition of working class and working masses, come from the pen of a communist of our time? Is this picture –so exact in its details and so tough in its denunciation- of a situation which is daily becoming worse in every country of the world, the fruit of a Marxist of today who lives in the situation of the present ‘capitalist ‘globalization’?
No, it was written by Lenin 96 years ago, in November of 1912 (Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1975, Moscow, Volume 18, pages 435-436). At first sight it strikes us for its impressive relevance to the present.
2. Also in Italy, a declining imperialist country, there grows the increasing impoverishment of labourers and working people, as a consequence of the deepening of capitalist crisis and the application of capitalist recipes to lower wages and rise profits. Besides, the augmented fullness and duration of unemployment, the increase in prices of consumer goods, taxes, loans, rents, give rise to a further constant reduction of workers’ wages.
This causes an impoverishment which goes on without any interruption and expands continuously, as the same bourgeois statistics prove. This impoverishment has a twofold peculiarity: it is both relative (i.e., the share of national income belonging to the working-class decreases), and absolute (the mere lowering of the working-class living standard).
This is a matter enormously felt a t a mass level and involves a lot of aspects of the life of every working-class family and anyone who lives on their work (wages, working time, accidents at work, house, bills, school expenditure, health service, taxes, cultural and moral decay, etc.). The economic situation of stagflaction, the wave of dismissals, the capitalist pressure to give workers a share, always smaller, of the value produced and lower wages under the value of the indispensable means of subsistence, the further restriction of consumption, the consequences of the neo liberalist policy are making even sharper the problem for millions of workers and pensioners who already live in the total absence of certainty and with always less hopes to improve their living conditions.
Hundreds of thousands proletarian families who hardly arrive at the end of the month, every day see their own conditions worsen and go into poverty for any unexpected event: dismissal, redundancy, illness, accident, loans instalments, which rise, etc. This process reveals, among other things, in the worsening of house and lodging conditions, in the worsening of wealth conditions of Italian workers.
Of course, this drama doesn’t affect only the proletariat, which in all its components, is the first victim of the capitalist roller, but also small peasants, large strata of white-collar lower middle classes of towns, retailers and craftsmen, sectors of intelligentsia, It has its peak in the south.
Here are some statistics.
From 2001 to 2005 there has been estimated a loss in the purchasing power of 14,1% for workers, 20,4% for lower level employees. Between 2005 and 2006 the indebtedness of Italian families has risen of 9,8%.
From 2004 to 2007, the net salary of Italian workers have gone from the
19th to the 23rd
place in the OECD classification, under that of
According to the Eurispes Report of 2007, more than half of Italian families get s a monthly total income lower than 1900 euro (please note that the average wage of Italian workers is 1170 euro per month). There are more than 5 million families, equal to 15 million people, who are poor (the 23% of Italian population.
Seven million of old people get pensions of 500 euro per month and suffer from hunger. One fourth of Italian young people is under the risk of poverty; these are figures of an underdeveloped country.
According to Istat (Central Institute of Statistics) figures for 2008, the 15% of workers’ families doesn’t succeed in arriving at the end of the month; the 9,3% are in arrear with the payments of the bills for water, electricity and gas; the 10,4% have not got the money for medical expenses; the 16,8% for buying necessary clothes; the 10,4% for heating their houses; and the 4,2% can’t even buy the necessary food.
According to a paper of BRI (Bank of International Regulations, which groups together all the central banks), in only a quarter of century the system of enterprises has taken eight points in percentage of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) out of wages. Before the ’80 years, the profit took the 23,2% of GDP; today they get almost the 32% of it: In monetary figures, eight points of GDP are equal to 120 milliard euro. It is clear that the inequality in the distribution of wealth is going back to levels of 1800.
The president of the Bank of Italy, Mr Draghi, has recently acknowledged that the average salary of subordinate workers, after taxes and contributions in real terms, have stopped at the level of 15 years ago. Therefore, the difference between wage and the smallest necessary yearly expenses increases more and more. Yet, Mr Draghi and his capitalist friends, who earn million of euro per year, go on maintaining (together with the leadership of trade unions) the necessity to cut wages and pensions further and to weaken the national collective agreements. This is the real aspect of capitalism!
Of course, the impoverishment of the large masses which is happening in our country is the aspect of a phenomenon which is becoming worse at an international level.
From a research of UNO, published in 2006, it turns out that the ratio
between the income of the 20% of the richest people in the world and the income
of the 20% of the poorest one was of 3 to
According to FAO, 74 million people
3. This is the
dramatic situation in which today the workers and the proletarian masses live
in Italy, in
In issue n°18/2007 of our theoretical journal ‘Teoria e Prassi’ (Theory and Praxis) we reminded that the theory of the tendential fall of the rate of profit has been and is still the ‘most discussed and criticized marxist economic theory’. But the same fate have had the Marxian theses on impoverishment, which have also been unanimously rejected by the academic bourgeois science and by its the reformist theorist followers.
One of the first who challenged them was Bernstein in his book The Prerequisites for Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy (1899) who made of this assertion one of the bases of his revisionism and reformism. As to Italian contemporary bourgeois economists, it is enough to name only two: Paolo Sylos Labini, who in many of his writings has constantly asserted that the thesis of impoverishment is one of Marx’s ‘three more serious mistakes’., and Michel Salviati, who, on the point of ‘Marx’s few observations on the raising impoverishment of proletariat’, thinks that it is ‘useless to debate if it is absolute or relative poverty: with this observation Marx din’t want to set up a hypothesis about the motive of the revolutionary action’. Obviously for him, too, as for Bernstein, the motives of the revolutionary action haven’t got their roots in the immanent tendencies of the capitalistic mode of production, but are all ideological and cultural (it so happens that Salviati has been one of the promoters of the neo-liberal Partito Democratico (Democratic Party) of Mr Walter Veltroni, who has considered the ‘dialogue’ with the ultra-reactionary government of Mr Berlusconi the reason of its existence).
To explain the real contents of Marx’s analysis we consider helpful to quote some extracts fron two of his works particularly meaningful, because they both contain the living testimony og the tight rapport existing between Marx’s theoretical elaboration and its link with the working class movement of his age: Relation of Wage-Labour to Capital: the outcome of a series of conferences he delivered in Brussels in 1849 at the <German Workers’ Association>, and Value
, Price and profit, delivered by Marx in 1865 at the venue of the General Council of the <International Association of Workers> (First International).
4. The following passage describes the reduction of what Marx calls the labourer’s ‘relative or proportional wage’:
<Rapid growth of productive capital calls forth just as rapid a growth of wealth, of luxury, of social needs and social pleasures. Therefore, although the pleasures of the labourer have increased, the social gratification which they afford has fallen in comparison with the increased pleasures of the capitalist, which are inaccessible to the worker, in comparison with the stage of development of society in general. Our wants and pleasures have their origin in society; we therefore measure them in relation to society; we do not measure them in relation to the objects which serve for their gratification. Since they are of a social nature, they are of a relative nature.
(…) The share of capitals in proportion to the share of labour has risen. The distribution of social wealth between capital and labour has become still more unequal. The capitalists commands a greater amount of labour with the same capital. The power of the capitalist class over the working class has grown, the social position of the worker has become worse, has been forced down still another degree below that of the capitalist.
(…) Within the relation of capital and wage-labour, the interests of capitals and the interests of wage-labour are diametrically opposed to each other.
A rapid growth of capital is synonymous with a rapid growth of profits. Profits can grow rapidly only when the price of labour –the relative wages- decrease just as rapidly. Relative wages may fall, although real wages rise simultaneously with nominal wages, with the money value of labour, provided only that the real wage does not rise in the same proportion as the profit. If, for instance,, in good business years wages rise 5 per cent, while profits rise 30 per cent, the proportional, the relative wage has not increased, but decreased.
(…) Even the most favourable situation for the working class, namely, the most rapid growth of capital, however much it may improve the material life of the worker, does not abolish the antagonism between his interests and the interests of the capitalist. Profit and wages remain as before, in inverse proportion.
If capital grows rapidly, wages may rise, but the profit of capital rises disproportionately faster. The material position of the worker has improved, but at the cost of his social position. The social chasm that separates him from the capitalist has widened>.
(Wage Labour and Capital, Marx Engels Internet Archive).
After sixteen years, studying in detail the analysis on the basis of what he himself had worked out in the Capital, Marx -in his exposition at the First International- clarifies at first that <The value of the labouring power is formed by two elements –the one merely physical, the other historical or social. Its ultimate limit is determined by the physical element, that is to say, to maintain and reproduce itself, to perpetuate its physical existence, the working class must receive the necessaries absolutely indispensable for living and multiplying. (…)
Besides this mere physical element, the value of labour is in every country determined by a traditional standard of life. (…) the fixation of its actual degree is only settled by the continuous struggle between capital and labour, the capitalist constantly tending to reduce wages to their physical minimum, and to extend the working day to its physical maximum, while the working man constantly presses in the opposite direction. The matter resolves itself into a question of the respective powers of the combatants>.
But Marx’s analysis goes further on the occasional respective powers of the combatants, which in some definite occasions may permit the working class ‘improve temporarily their situation’.
<The price of the labour market>, he writes, <as that of all other commodities, in long terms will adapt itself to its value; therefore in spite of all ups and downs, and in spite of everything the labourer may do, after all he will receive only the value of his labour power>
By what are the limits of the value of labour determined?
<As to the limits of the value of labour, its actual settlement always depends upon supply and demand, I mean the demand for labour on the part of capital, and the supply of labour by the working men>.
Considering –Marx points out- the growing development of the capitalist mode o f production, <(…) One might infer, as Adam Smith, in whose days modern industry was still in its infancy, did infer, that the accelerated accumulation of capital must turn the balance in favour of the working man, by securing a growing demand for his labour. (…) But simultaneously with the progress of accumulation there takes place a progressive change in the composition of capital. The part of the aggregate capital which consists of fixed capital, machinery, raw materials, means of production in all possible forms, progressively increases as compared with the other part of capital, which is laid out in wages or in the purchase of labour> (It is the phenomenon which in the Capital will be defined by Marx as <rise of organic composition of capital> Editor’s note) (….) In the progress of industry the demand for labour keeps, therefore, no pace with the accumulation of capital. It will still increase, but increase in a constantly diminishing ratio as compared with the increase of capital>.
As a consequence <(…) the very development of modern industry must progressively turn the scale in favour of the capitalist against the working man, and that consequently the general tendency of capitalistic production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages (bold type is ours), or to push the value of labour more or less to its minimum limit. Such being the tendency of things in this system>.
5. Therefore, according to the marxian scientific analysis, this is the general tendency of the capitalistic mode of production; tendency which with the accumulation of capital goes in one direction only: that of the concentration of enormous wealth, luxury, parasitism, waste, idleness in one pole of society; while in the other pole exploitation and oppression become more and more intense, unemployment ad temporary employment grow, the poverty and hunger of those who with their work produce wealth, increase.
It is important to notice that Marx does not identify any general counter tendency of capitalism which goes in the opposite direction, , unlike, for example, the counter tendencies or <antagonistic causes> analyzed by Marx –in the Capital, Book 3- in relation to the tendential fall of the rate of profit.
The working class struggle itself <against the effects> of this tendency –Marx states with extreme clarity- <can only retard the downward movement, but not change its direction >. The necessary daily <guerrilla war> of the proletariat for the defence of its fundamental living and working conditions <applies only palliatives, but does not cures the malady>. That is why, <instead of the conservative motto ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’, workers ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!>
(Value, Price and Profit, Marx Engels Internet Archive).
Abolition of the wages system: that is proletarian revolution, expropriation of capitalists, demolition of their state machinery, construction of socialism. This is the only way to put an end to the enrichment of bourgeois parasites and the impoverishment of the working masses.
6. The problem of the worsening of the living conditions of the working masses, which is an inevitable result of capitalistic accumulation, is strictly connected to the fundamental contradiction of the present mode of production, that between the more and more social character of the production process and the capitalistic private form of appropriation of the manufactured goods. Therefore it is a field of fundamental struggle to push the working class to free itself from the tyranny of capital, a very large field thanks to which we will be able do develop among workers the true class conscience, a real field for the conquest of advanced proletarian workers to the cause of socialism and for the extension of the influence of communists over large sectors of working masses who are crushed by the capitalist roller.
Therefore we must develop action on the matter of impoverishment, not only to present a series of demands to improve the conditions of the working class and popular masses, but above all to claim the abolition of capitalism, an obsolete system, historically outdated, and suggest the road to socialism, the planned society which since its birth will be able to guarantee the fundamental needs of workers and a life without any worries for the masses.
7. We close this short paper quoting from Lenin again, who in his A draft of Our Party Programme (1899) (in Collected Works, Book 4, Internet Archive ) wrote:
this should be followed by outline of the fundamental tendency of capitalism
–the splitting of the people into a bourgeoisie and a proletariat, the growth of the <the mass of misery,
oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation>. These famous words of Marx are repeated in the second paragraph of the
Erfut Programme of the German Social-Democratic Party, and the critics that are
grouped about Bernstein have recently made particularly violent attacks
precisely against this point, repeating the old objections raised by bourgeois
liberals and social-politicians against the
<theory of impoverishment>.
In our opinion the polemic that has raged round this question has
demonstrated the utter groundlessness of such <criticism> .
Bernstein himself admitted that the above words of Marx were true as a
characterization of the tendency of capitalism –a tendency that becomes
a reality in the absence of the class struggle of the proletariat against it.,
in the absence of labour protection laws achieved by the working class. It is
(…)An so, the words about the growth of <the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation> must, in our opinion, imperatively be included in our programme –first, because they faith fully describe the basic and essential features of capitalism, they characterise precisely the process that unrolls before our eyes and that is one of the chief reasons for the emergence of the working-class movement and socialism in Russia; secondly, because these words provide a fund of material for agitation, because they summarise a whole series of phenomena that most oppress the masses of the workers, but, at he same time, most arouse their indignation (unemployment, low wages, under nourishment, famine, the Draconian discipline of capital, prostitution, the growth in the number of domestics, etc.).
These are words addressed to us communists of today, to all the communists of our time, for the discussion and preparation of the political programme of the working class Communist party which we, with common effort of the vanguard labourers of our country, must reconstruct.