April 24, 2024

Lev Abramovich Leontyev - economist, corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Vyacheslav Runov / RIA Novosti Source: https://tinyurl.com/3ssd4bhb

Excerpt from Political Economy: A Beginners Course written by Lev Abramovich Leontiev and first published in Moscow, 1935, by the Co-operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the USSR.

What is capitalism?
…the only source of unearned increment for the capitalists is the labour of the proletarians. Now let us take a closer look at the invisible force which compels millions of people to submit to the caprices of a handful of capitalists. We must more closely examine the power of capital, analyse what capital is.

The exploitation of the workers by the capitalists is possible only because, under capitalism, all wealth is concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie. The capitalists own all the means of production and existence, the workers have neither the one nor the other. The bourgeoisie has monopolized (that is, taken exclusive possession of) all the wealth of society.

“The characteristic features of capitalist society which arose on
the basis of commodity production are the monopoly of the most
important and vital means of production by the capitalist class and
big landlords; the exploitation of the wage labour of the proletariat
which, being deprived of the means of production, is compelled to
sell its labour power; the production of commodities for profit and,
linked up with all this, the planless and anarchic character of the
process of production as a whole.”

This is how the capitalist system is characterized in the Program of the Communist International.

Under capitalism the proletariat is deprived of the means of production. By means of production we understand those things that are of prime necessity for man to work with. It is easy to note that the means of production consist of several most important parts. These are, first of all, the instruments of labour, from the cobbler’s simple awl to the most complex and intricate machines in modern plants and factories. Further there is the raw material which must be used. The raw material for boots is leather; for the smelting of iron, iron ore is the raw material; for the weaving of calico, cotton is the raw material. Finally, there are a number of accessory materials needed for work, such as oil, sand, lime, etc.

The lot of these different elements of the means of production in work is not the same. The instruments of labour last a long time. In a textile mill the same looms will weave many pieces of fabric. The materials used have quite a different fate. The raw material disappears in the process of production – it is transformed into an entirely new product. The leather in the hands of the cobbler becomes boots, cloth in the hands of the tailor becomes a suit, ore at a metallurgical plant is made into iron; the accessory materials are also completely used up in the process of work: fuel vanishes in heating the factory boilers, oil disappears in the machinery.

Under capitalism these means of production, without which no work is possible, are in the hands of the bourgeoisie. This gives the bourgeoisie tremendous power over society. In the hands of the bourgeoisie the means of production become means of exploitation because they are concentrated in comparatively few hands while the vast mass of the population is deprived of them and must therefore sell its labour power.

Capital is not a thing, but a definite social relation, said Marx. Things – means of production and all other kinds of commodities – in the hands of the bourgeoisie in themselves are not capital. Only a definite social system makes these things into means of exploitation, converts them into carriers of that social relation which we call capital. Capital is “a special, historically definite, social production relation.” (Lenin.)

It is the social relation between the class that owns the means of production and the class which, deprived of the means of production, is therefore compelled to undergo exploitation. Since in capitalist society the means of production are bought and sold, they are commodities. And as commodities they have value and can be converted into money (i.e., sold); on the other hand, for money one can always obtain means of production (purchase them). Hence, to put it differently, capital can be defined as a value which brings surplus value (by squeezing it out of wage labour). But value is nothing but crystallized labour. Value is the result of labour. Value is expended, dead labour. That is why Marx says that “capital is dead labour, that, vampire like, only lives by sucking living labour….”[2]


[1] The Program of the Communist International, p. 1, Modern Books, Ltd., London, 1929.

[2] Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 216.