This essay will attempt, first and foremost, a definitive exposition of Marx’s theory of productive and unproductive labour.footnote1 This theory is presented in the three volumes of Capital and in Theories of Surplus Value—Marx’s projected historico-critical fourth volume.footnote2 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.footnote3 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.footnote4 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,footnote5 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.footnote6

With these requirements in mind, this paper is divided into three parts (or rather two and a half, since the third is relatively brief and inadequate). First, there is an attempt to spell out precisely what Marx meant by the terms productive labour and unproductive labour, by summarizing and reproducing where necessary, his writings on the subject. In so doing, I shall follow Marx’s own order of analysis by beginning with the basic concepts of Capital volume I, as developed and expanded in the first volume of Theories of Surplus Value, and by then proceeding with their modification to take account of commercial labour in volumes II and III. In the second part, the concept of productive and unproductive labour is situated in its context, by relating it to the central propositions of Marx’s political economy. The questions and ambiguities which this raises are then analysed, by comparing the role and status of the concept for Marx with Adam Smith and classical political economy on the one hand, and with more recent Marxist writers on the other. Lastly, there is a very brief consideration of the political implications of the theory of productive and unproductive labour.

‘Only bourgeois narrow-mindedness, which regards the capitalist forms of production as absolute forms—hence as eternal, natural forms of production—can confuse the question of what is productive labour from the standpoint of capital with the question of what labour is productive in general, or what is productive labour in general; and consequently fancy itself very wise in giving the answer that all labour which produces anything at all, which has any kind of result, is by that very fact productive labour.’ (IV/1, 393).

For Marx, the concept of productive labour was an historically specific concept, and for this very reason it was necessary to distinguish at the outset productive labour under capitalism from ‘productive labour in general’.footnote7 We begin, therefore, with his analysis of the latter, which Marx in volume I, chapter 1 of Capital calls useful labour. This—the production of use values through the labour process—is a necessary condition of human existence:

‘In the use value of each commodity there is contained useful labour, i.e.: productive activity of a definite kind and exercised with a definite aim . . . so far therefore as labour is a creator of use value, is useful labour, it is a necessary condition, independent of all forms of society, for the existence of the human race; it is an eternal nature—imposed necessity, without which there can be no material exchanges between man and Nature, and therefore no life.’ (I,1, 42–3).

This necessary condition holds, therefore, for all commodity production and for all capitalist production:

‘In order that his labour may reappear in a commodity, he must, therefore, before all things, expend it on something useful, on something capable of satisfying a want of some sort. Hence, what the capitalist sets the labourer to produce, is a particular use-value, a specified article. The fact that the production of use-values, or goods, is carried on under the control of a capitalist and on his behalf, does not alter the general character of that production.’ (I, 7, 177).