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New Left Review I/76, November-December 1972


Ian Gough

Marx’s Theory of Productive and Unproductive Labour

This essay will attempt, first and foremost, a definitive exposition of Marx’s theory of productive and unproductive labour. [1] This essay originated in a Manchester study group which for two years systematically read and discussed the three volumes of Marx’s Capital. This theory is presented in the three volumes of Capital and in Theories of Surplus Value—Marx’s projected historico-critical fourth volume. [2] To avoid unnecessary footnotes, references to these volumes are placed immediately after any quotation. References to Capital give first the volume, second the chapter and third the page numbers in the Moscow editions of 1961 (vol. I), 1967 (vol. II) and 1966 (vol. III). Treating Theories of Surplus Value as the fourth projected volume of Capital, I refer to the three parts as IV/1, IV/2 and IV/3, followed by the page numbers in the Moscow editions of 1969 (part 1), 1968 (part 2) and 1972 (part 3). This seems useful and necessary for several reasons. First, as one of the most suspect legacies of classical political economy, its importance in Marxist political economy is disputed. [3] Compare for instance Joan Robinson’s view of the status of the concept with Baran’s: J. Robinson, An Essay on Marxian Economics, 2nd ed., London 1966, pp. 20–1. P. Baran, The Political Economy of Growth, London 1957, Ch. 2. As a result, it has not been accorded a central place in most expositions of Marx’s political economy, and its relation to the fundamental concept of surplus value has not been sufficiently emphasized. [4] The best, though brief, expositions are found in P. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, London 1962 and E. Mandel, Marxist Economic Theory, 2 vols., London, 1968. See S. H. Coontz, Productive Labour and Effective Demand, London 1965, for an extended discussion. To anticipate, if the essential problem for Marx in his mature economic writings was the explanation of surplus value under capitalism, then, on any count, the distinction between productive labour which creates surplus value, and unproductive labour much of which is supported out of surplus value—this distinction is a critical one. Its analysis is the more urgent since several Marxist writers, notably Baran, [5] P. Baran, op. cit. See also J. Gillman, The Falling Rate of Profit (London, 1957); the stimulating debate between J. Morris and J. Blake in Science and Society, vol. 22, 1958 and vol. 24, 1960; and J. Gillman, Prosperity in Crisis New York 1965. These alternative interpretations are discussed in part II. have recently reinterpreted the concept in the course of focusing on the disposal and absorption of the surplus under monopoly capitalism. Lastly, there has been a recent growth of awareness that the concepts of productive and unproductive labour may have political implications, by influencing our interpretation of the class structure of present-day monopoly capitalism. [6] See M. Nicolaus, ‘Proletariat and Middle Class in Marx’, Studies on the Left, VII, 1, Jan.–Feb., 1967.

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