[OPE-L:1840] Marx and the Iron Law of Wages

Subject: [OPE-L:1840] Marx and the Iron Law of Wages
From: Gerald Levy (glevy@PRATT.EDU)
Date: Sun Dec 05 1999 - 11:17:06 EST

A parenthetical question that comes to mind after reading Paul Z's
[OPE-::1839]: Who was the original writer to identify Marx with the "Iron
Law of Wages"? Was it Lassalle himself?

It seems odd that Marx's understanding of wages has been so often
(mis-)identified with the "iron law of wages" since Marx at various times
and places, including in _Capital_, attacked and condemned that law.
Indeed on this question, he was very clear and unambiguous. E.g. in the
1875 "Critique of a Gotha Programme", he wrote:

         [Warning: long passage follows!, JL]

         [Responding to a section of the programme that called for, in
         part, "the abolition of the wage system *together with the iron
         law of wages*..., JL] "So, in future, the German workers' party
         has got to believe in Lassalle's 'iron law of wages'! That this
         may not be lost, the nonsense is perpetuated of speaking of the
         'abolition of the wage system' (it should read: system of wage
         labour) '*together with* the iron law of wages.' If I abolish
         wage-labour, then naturally I abolish its laws also, whether
         they are of 'iron' or sponge. But Lassalle's attack on
         wage-labour turns almost solely on this so-called law. In order,
         therefore, to prove that Lassalle's sect has conquered, the 'wage
         system' must be abolished '*together with* the iron law of
         wages' and not without it.
            It is well known that nothing of the 'iron law of wages' is
         Lassalle's except the word 'iron' borrowed from Goethe's 'great,
         eternal iron laws.' The word *iron* is a label by which the true
         believers recognize one another. But if I take the law with
         Lassalle's stamp on it and, consequently, in his sense, then I
         must also take with it his substantiation for it. And what is
         that? As Lange already showed, shortly after Lassalle's death,
         it is the Malthusian theory of population (preached by Lange
         himself). But if this theory is correct, then again I *cannot*
         abolish the law even if I abolish wage labour a hundred times
         over, because the law then governs not only the system of wage
         labour but *every* social system. Basing themselves directly on
         this, the economists have been proving for fifty years and more
         that socialism cannot abolish poverty, *which has its basis in
         nature*, but can only make it *general*, distribute it
         simultaneously over the whole surface of society!

         But all this is not the main thing. *Quite apart* from the
         *false* Lassallean formulation of the law, the truly outrageous,
         retrogression consists in the following:

         Since Lassalle's death there has asserted itself in *our* party
         the scientific understanding that wages are not what they
         *appear* to be, namely, the *value*, or *price*, of *labour*,
         but only a masked form for the *value*, or *price*, of *labour
         power*. Thereby the whole bourgeois conception of wages hitherto,
         as well as all the criticism hitherto directed against this
         conception, was thrown overboard once for all and it was made
         clear that the wage-worker has permission to work for his own
         subsistence, that is, *to live*, only in so far as he works for a
         certain time gratis for the capitalist (and hence for the
         latter's co-consumers of surplus value); that the whole
         capitalist system of production turns on the increase of this
         gratis labour by extending the working day or by developing the
         productivity, that is, increasing the intensity of labour
         power, etc.; that, consequently, the system of wage labour is a
         system of slavery, and indeed of a slavery which becomes more
         severe in proportion as the social productive forces of labour
         develop, whether the worker receives better or worse payment. And
         after this understanding has gained more and more ground in our
         Party, one returns to Lassalle's dogmas although one must have
         known that Lassalle *did not know* what wages were, but following
         in the wake of the bourgeois economists took the appearance
         for the essence of the matter.

           It is as if, among slaves who have at last got beyond the
         secret of slavery and broken out in rebellion, a slave still in
         thrall to obsolete notions were to inscribe on the programme of
         the rebellion: Slavery must be abolished because the feeding of
         slaves in the system of slavery cannot exceed a certain low
         maximum!" ("Critique of a Gotha Programme" in _Selected Works_,
         Volume 3, pp. 22-24, emphasis in original).

So how is that Marx's theory came to be identified with the "iron law of

I also wonder: to what extent does Lassalle's "iron law of wages" in
fact rely on a Malthusian concept of population? Have any of us actually
read Lassalle's writings to suggest an answer to this question?

In solidarity, Jerry

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