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DAVID LEVY, Marxism and Alienation - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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Marxism and Alienation
NOT TOO MANY YEARS ago there was no Marxist challenge to the rationale for a market system which deserved to be taken seriously; Mises and friends did their work so well that advanced Western socialists adopted the market as their own, and even communists learned the glories of directing resource allocation by an Invisible Hand. Much has changed; a streamlined form of Marxism has returned to present the market with a most formidable challenge. The thesis, which we shall call the alienation argument, that the market’s operation systematically forces workers to participate in a psychologically damaging method of production, is widely pressed by a number of well known social thinkers,1 a surprisingly large number to judge their influence from the almost nonexistent counter attacks. The major deterrent to hostile examination of this challenge must be the patent absurdity to which the conclusions can be pushed. That the subject matter of the challenges seems to fall within disciplines which are not overly concerned with a study of the workings of the market system has also not helped stimulate debate.
Interest in alienation arose with the discovery and gradual translation of an earlier and previously unknown body of Marx’s writings which can justify the creation of a greatly different Marxism: both more liberal and not chargeable for unfulfilled predictions and internal contradictions. The tale of this growing discussion and the application of his ideas has been told many times in readily available form.2
The proponents of the alienation argument contend that a market system with an advanced form of the division of labor wreaks psychological havoc on workers. Although the philosophy of alienation can be linked with the theory that man is alienated whenever he works for income rather than for the sake of the work itself,3 we shall only deal with a more relevant version which contends that the division of labor by its infinite specialization imposes costs on the workers. Or, as Marx writes in Capital:
manufacture . . . seizes labour-power by its very roots. It converts the labourer into a crippled monstrosity, by forcing his detail dexterity at the expense of a world of productive capabilities and instincts. . . .4
Or, from a non-Marxist vantage, Daniel Bell argues:
The most characteristic fact about the American factory worker today—and probably the worker in factories in other countries as well—is his lack of interest in work. Few individuals think of “the job” as a place to seek any fulfilment. There is quite often the camaraderie of the shop, the joking, gossip, and politicking of group life. But work itself, the daily tasks which the individual is called upon to perform, lacks any real challenge, and is seen only as an irksome chore to be shirked, or to be finished as fast as possible.5
Our analysis will proceed by a roundabout historical method: we will examine the alienation argument as it was developed in Capital to clear up some muddled interpretations of Marx’s ideas and then we will give some examples of a related discussion in classical economic literature. By reformulating the alienation argument to meet one of the few detailed criticisms, we can easily see a failure which is so fundamental that no reformulation can make it stand as a viable non-ascetic criticism of a functioning market system. Those interested neither in an examination of the later Marxian system nor a glance at a bit of economic intellectual history are invited or warned to skip the next two sections.
WE WILL NOT GO INTO a detailed examination of the early body of Marx’s thought, for there are no conflicting interpretations in which we will be interested. There are, however, two dominant interpretations of Marx’s thoughts on alienation in Capital. Eric Fromm and others6 argue against the older “exploitation” reading, according to which Marx’s denunciation of capitalism depends on his theory that the worker is paid less than his value; they stress that alienation is the dominant idea in Marx’s published economic writings as well as in the earlier unpublished ones. Bell and others7 defend the classical view and argue that in Capital problems of alienation are forgotten, or as Bell says, relegated to literary references and treated only as a problem of technology to be solved by automation.
The critical point to remember while reading Marx is the importance of technology in his system. It is changing technology which brings about changes in the social order, the division of labor, and through its influence on the division of labor, to alienation in capitalism
The first conception of the division of labor which Marx considers is co-operation, where work differs from a purely atomistic variety largely in that workers are side by side. Although this form of organization requires a mass of capital, the lack of highly developed tools or machines implies that individuals do not specialize in production:
Simple co-operation is always the prevailing form, in those branches of production in which capital operates on a large scale, and division of labour and machinery play but a subordinate part.8
Co-operation does not present psychological problems of alienation:
mere social contact begest in most industries an emulation and a stimulation of the animal spirits that heighten the efficiency of each individual workman.9
When the labourer co-operates systematically with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species.10
The next form of the division of labor, manufacturing, arises
from the union of various independent handicrafts, which become stripped of their independence and specialised to such an extent as to be reduced to mere supplementary partial processes in the production of one particular commodity.11
from the co-operation of artificers of one handicraft; it splits up the particular handicraft into its various detail operations, isolating, and making these operations independent of one another up to the point where each becomes the exclusive function of a particular labourer.12
Here the influence of technology is clearly emphasized.
Manufacture is characterised by the differentiation of the instruments of labour—a differentiation whereby implements of a given sort acquire fixed shapes, adapted to each particular application. . . . The manufacturing period simplifies, improves, and multiplies the implements of labour, by adapting them to the exclusively special functions of each detail labourer. It thus creates at the same time one of the material conditions for the existence of machinery . . .13
The result is a “productive mechanism whose parts are human beings.”14
Here the adverse effects of the division of labor make their unwelcome appearance: “The one-sidedness and the deficiencies of the detail labourer become perfections when he is a part of the collective labourer.”15 Yet this leads to the further development of a class of the unskilled which
develops a one-sided speciality into a perfection, at the expense of the whole of a man’s working capacity, it also begins to make a speciality of the absence of all development.16
Marx compares the difference between co-operation and manufacture in a passage which we have partially quoted before:
While simple co-operation leaves the mode of working by the individual for the most part unchanged, manufacture thoroughly revolutionises it, and seizes labour-power by its very roots. It converts the labourer into a crippled monstrosity, by forcing his detail dexterity at the expense of a world of productive capabilities and instincts. . . .17
There is yet a final stage in the development of the division of labor, however, as modern industry destroys the technical foundations of the older division of labor:
Modern Industry never looks upon and treats the existing form of a process as final. The technical basis of that industry is therefore revolutionary, while all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative. . . . it is continually causing changes not only in the technical basis of production, but also in the functions of the labourer, and in the social combinations of the labour-process.18
With the need for mobility caused by modern industry’s creation of an industrial reserve army (in conjunction with the falling rate of profit and the class polarization), the bondage of man to detail work is swept away. Modern industry should
replace [the] detail-worker of to-day, crippled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production.19
We see therefore that alienation cannot be Capital’s chief criticism of capitalism, because in fully developed capitalism, alienation is no longer a problem.
Fromm’s reading of Marx is singularly unfortunate; he has ignored the crucial changes in technology. Further, if it were true that Marx is seriously concerned with alienation in Capital we would expect the same picture of the ideal state which we find in his earlier writings to emerge. Instead of the utopian version in German Ideology:
In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.20
we find in Capital:
when the working-class comes into power, as inevitably it must, technical instruction, both theoretical and practical, will take its proper place in the working-class schools.21
Bell’s reading of Marx is closer but he fails to see Marx’s detailed treatment of the progress of the division of labor and alienation. Further, alienation does not disappear with automation, but with the creation of interindustry mobility brought about by the industrial reserve army.
A REFINED VERSION of the alienation argument goes back to Adam Smith:22
In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging; and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, . . . . His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.23
This is not an isolated point in the Wealth of Nations for Smith argues at length that barbaric societies and agricultural occupations are intellectually stimulating and in a similar vein “people of some rank and fortune” don’t have the problem of the laboring poor.24
This argument clearly differs from Marx’s in important respects; Smith ignores any implications for the welfare of the workers and worries only about the effect of the division of labor on the worker’s ability to be a good citizen. Nonetheless Smith and Marx agree on the central thesis that productive activity is the dominant force shaping the worker’s mental state; although Smith is optimistic enough to think that education can remedy the problem.25
Smith’s argument is reproduced by J. B. Say:
A man, whose whole life is devoted to the execution of a single operation, will most assuredly acquire the faculty of executing it better and quicker than others; but he will, at the same time, be rendered less fit for every other occupation, corporeal or intellectual; his other faculties will be gradually blunted or extinguished; and the man, as an individual will degenerate in consequence.26
Say’s American editor disagrees, and cites Dugald Stewart’s argument:
The extensive propagation of light and refinement arising from the influence of the press, aided by the spirit of commerce, seems to be the remedy to be provided by nature against the fatal effects which would otherwise be produced, by the subdivision of labour accompanying the progress of the mechanical arts: nor is any thing wanting to make the remedy effectual, but wise institutions to facilitate general instruction, and to adapt the education of individuals to the stations they are to occupy.27
An interesting critical literature arose in the notes of various editions of the Wealth of Nations. McCulloch strongly dissents from Smith’s argument in his edition.
As well as asserting that the evidence contradicts the proposition that manufacturing laborers make bad soldiers,28 he argues:
The weaver, and other mechanics of Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham, etc. possess far more general and useful information than is possessed by the agricultural labourers of any part of the empire. And this is really what a more unprejudiced inquiry into the subject would lead to anticipate. The various occupations in which the husbandman successively engages, their constant liability to be affected by so variable a power as the weather, and the perpetual change in the appearance of the objects which daily meet his eyes, and with which he is conversant, occupy his attention, and render him a stranger to that ennui and desire for adventitious excitement which must ever be felt by those who are constantly engaged in burnishing the point of a pin, or in performing the same endless routine of precisely similar operations. This want of excitement cannot, however, be so cheaply or effectually gratified in any way as it may be by stimulating, that is, by cultivating the mental powers. Most workmen have no time for dissipation; and though they had, the wages of labour in old settled and densely peopled countries are too low, and the propensity to save and accumulate too powerful, to permit their generally seeking to divert themselves by indulging in riot and excess. They are thus driven to seek for recreation in mental excitement; and the circumstances under which they are placed afford them every possible facility for gratifying themselves in this manner. By working together in considerable numbers they have what the agriculturists generally want, constant opportunities of discussing every topic of interest or importance; they are thus gradually trained to habits of thinking and reflection; their intellects are sharpened by the collision of conflicting opinions; and a small contribution from each individual enables them to obtain supplies of newspapers and of the cheaper class of periodical publications.29
Thus the worker’s job influences his intelligence but in exactly the opposite manner that Smith argues. Further and more importantly, intelligence is stimulated by social contact and discussion, a point Smith did not make.
Rogers, while not necessarily contradicting Smith’s analysis, argues that the evils which Smith denounces are no longer relevant:
The experience of modern society affords a corrective to this sweeping charge. The manufacturing populations of many large towns, among whom the division of labour is carried to the farthest limit conceivable, are honourably distinguished by the energy with which they have furthered the means of local education through the maintenance of mechanics’ institutes, libraries, and schools. This machinery of adult education has been generally adopted in many towns, especially in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and there are no persons more alive to the benefits of education than the factory hands of the north-west counties of England. There were other reasons which made such people indifferent to public questions in Smith’s days, and in particular the exclusion of the mass of artisans from all political power.30
The Garnier edition defends Smith from McCulloch:
This passage on the moral superiority of the agricultural population relative to the urban working class is one which best illustrates the sincerity and genius of the founder of political economy. . . . McCulloch asserts, in a note, if the agricultural population had ever been intellectually and morally superior to the industrial population, it is not today; he maintains that today the English industrial workers are more intelligent than the farming peasantry. . . . McCulloch is completely refuted by the recent inquiries into the condition of the handloom weavers. The commissioners state that the weavers were formerly an intelligent and moral class, but from poverty they have become brutalized and morally degraded, falling into the condition of the lowest class of the English nation. . . . Therefore Adam Smith is still right today; agricultural work is more favorable to morality, human understanding, and health than modern industrial work, especially as it is found in England today.31
Marshall devotes a considerable discussion to the related problem of industrial boredom: he is interested in the worker’s quality of life, and if a more tedious but less tiring work allows pursuit of intellectually stimulating interests outside the job, then there is no social problem, only cause for rejoicing.32 Thus the type of work in which a man is engaged forms only a slight influence in the stimulation of intelligence. Marshall also observes that any truly tedious job will be the easiest to mechanize and hence will most likely disappear.33
Undoubtedly there is a much greater literature on the subject than I have indicated, both in the studies of the conditions of the poor and perhaps in the theoretical literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.34 However, one bit of information exists which should settle any interest in priorities. In the introduction to the new edition of Rae’s Life of Adam Smith, Jacob Viner writes:
There is one issue on which Smith and Ferguson cover common ground, as also John Millar, Robert Wallace, and later, after the publication of The Wealth of Nations, a host of writers including notably Karl Marx, and that is the proposition that division of labor tends to degrade labor, the “Entfremdung” or “alienation” issue. Here Adam Smith has clear claims to priority as far as British writers are concerned, although according to Marx, who was not acquainted with Smith’s contributions to the Edinburgh Review in 1755, it was Smith who was taught by Ferguson, rather than the other way around. But all of these, except perhaps Marx, were started on this line of thought by a “French author,” or at least an author writing in French, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and none of them made a secret of his indebtedness. . . .35
IN THE ONE elaborate attack on the alienation argument I know, Nathaniel Branden makes two objections to the theory of alienation which are relevant for our purposes: (i) the division of labor and specialization produces material well-being on which our lives and happiness depend, and (ii) the wages paid to a man are objectively determined by market forces, “the only rational and just principles of exchange.”36
These criticisms, however, do not seem to come to grips with at least some of the proponents of the alienation argument. Consider Bell’s point:
For the unions to challenge the work process [to help rid the economy of alienation] would require a radical challenge to society as a whole: . . . it is to question the logic of a consumption economy whose prime consideration is lower costs and increasing output. Moreover, how could any single enterprise, in a competitive situation, increase its costs by reorganizing the flow of work, without falling behind its competitors? But this is not only a failing of “capitalist” society. In the socialist societies, sadly, there have been almost no imaginative attempts to think through the meaning of the work process. . . .
For underdeveloped countries, where living standards are pitifully low, it is difficult to talk of sacrificing production in order to make work more meaningful to the worker. Yet these are not, nor should they be, put in either/or terms. Engineers have learned that if efficiency considerations are pushed too far—if work is broken down into the most minute parts and made completely monotonous—they become self-defeating. The question is always one of “how much.” But the question must be stated and placed in the forefront of considerations.37
This argument surely does not involve a denial of the need for a division of labor or indeed of a market process.
To meet Branden’s criticisms formally we can reformulate the alienation argument as follows: workers have preferences for material wage income, income in the form of leisure, and in addition, income in the form of the type of productive activity in which they are engaged. Hence, they are willing to exchange a certain amount of wage goods for an amount of leisure or employment in a more desirable productive activity. Yet, the argument goes, the capitalistic system is rigid and run by those interested in producing material goods, the worker has no choice; he is denied the ability to choose between the forms of income, he is forced to take material goods and forego employment in desirable productive processes. Thus because wages and productive activities are joint operations it is impossible for a worker to obtain an optimal allocation of income. In a word, he is alienated. The solution presumably is some form of economic system in which a more optimal form of the division of labor can emerge.
This formulation meets Branden’s objections: the question is not whether income is desirable (his first point) or whether a functioning competitive labor market produces an optimum in terms of material income (his second) but whether the market correctly allocates intrapersonal distribution of income, broadly defined.
Once the problem is so stated the solution is trivial. Take the case: How does the market allocate income between material income and leisure? If there are workers who would like to exchange wage goods for more leisure, then there exists a wage such that it will be to the advantage of the employer to adjust the terms of employment to the workers’ desires. This is not to say the employer is necessarily indifferent between employees working any hours at a given wage rate; but that it is possible to adjust production to different hours desired, if workers are willing to pay for more leisure by accepting lower wages. This argument is valid under the condition that production functions are uniform throughout the economy. On a more reasonable assumption of different production processes, workers can allocate themselves among employers with different desires for hours to be worked and hence receive a more constant wage rate. (Significantly Marx could not see how the market would operate in this case—in his system, hours of employment are determined by political power).38
The problem of the exchange of wage goods for employment in different production processes is completely analogous: the employer would be willing to make the trade if it meant that he could produce with less cost. This would be the case if his laborers accept a real wage sufficiently low to compensate for the employer’s loss in adopting a different process of production. Again the argument is correct even in the case where all industry production functions are the same, and of course the effect becomes stronger when we recognize the existence of a myriad of production processes.
The implication of this argument is that alienation in a functioning market economy is simply an aspect of scarcity. Income in any form is rarely a free good and we should expect workers to be dissatisfied about their productive activity, in the sense that they would be rather doing something else, if their material income were not changed, just as we should expect that they do not have enough material goods to satisfy all of their needs. Industrial alienation is thus no viable criticism of the market any more than scarcity would be.
If the concept of alienation or worker dissatisfaction is to have any use, another major problem must be cleared up: how is on the job income shared among the family? Income and leisure can be shared, but it is not at all obvious that income from employment in a more desirable production process can be similarly distributed. A serious study of worker “dissatisfaction” would have to investigate this relationship.
[* ] David Levy is an Associate Editor of New Individualist Review. He received his B.A. in Economics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1966, and is currently doing graduate work at the University of Chicago.
[1 ] Eric Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man (New York: Frederick Unger, 1961), pp. 43-58; Robert Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), pp. 234-43; Daniel Bell, End of Ideology (New York Free Press, 1960), pp. 335-68.
[2 ] Fromm, op. cit., pp. 1-3, 69-74; Dirk J. Struik, “Introduction” to Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (New York: International Publishers, 1964), pp. 47-56. Attention cannot be too often directed to Lukacs’ stupendous feat; the prediction of the content of the early Marxian manuscripts prior to their discovery, and to the service of scholarship performed when the masters of the Soviet Union convinced him of the error of his ways and brought him back to the light. Bell, op. cit., pp. 343-44.
[3 ] Marx, op. cit., pp. 110-11.
[4 ] Karl Marx, Capital (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, n.d.), Vol. I, p. 360.
[5 ] Bell, op. cit., p. 367.
[6 ] Fromm, op. cit., pp. 69-80; Tucker, op. cit., pp. 165-76 (with reservations); Struik, op. cit., pp. 49-56, 234-35 (with different reservations).
[7 ] Bell, op. cit., pp. 335-67; Lewis Feuer, “What is Alienation? The Career of a Concept,” in Sociology on Trial, eds. Maurice Stein and Arthur Vidich (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963), pp. 136-37. Fromm, op. cit., p. 73, cites others.
[8 ] Marx, Capital, p. 335.
[9 ]Ibid., p. 326.
[10 ]Ibid., p. 328.
[11 ]Ibid., p. 338.
[13 ]Ibid., pp. 341-42.
[14 ]Ibid., p. 338.
[15 ]Ibid., p. 349.
[16 ]Ibid., p. 350.
[17 ]Ibid., p. 360.
[18 ]Ibid., pp. 486-87.
[19 ]Ibid., p. 488. Georges Friedmann, Anatomy of Work (New York: Free Press, 1962) mistakes this as a picture of the ideal socialist society and fails to see that this is Marx’s picture of the last stage of capitalism.
[20 ] Cited in Fromm, op. cit., p. 42.
[21 ] Marx, Capital, p. 488.
[22 ] Adam Smith, Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue and Arms, ed. Edwin Cannan (New York: Augustus Kelley, 1964), pp. 255-58. If I had known E. G. West’s note, “Adam Smith’s Two Views of the Division of Labor,” Economica, XXXI (1964), 23-32, before writing this section, much time would have been spared.
[23 ] Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (New York: Modern Library, 1937), p. 734. Bell, op. cit., p. 227, refers to this argument with Smith, but does not tie it in with his treatment of alienation. In the sociological literature Hegel is universally credited with inspiring Marx, which indicates I suppose that Stigler’s General Incompetence Theorem applies outside of economics also.
[24 ] Smith, Wealth of Nations, pp. 127, 735-37.
[25 ]Ibid., pp. 734-35.
[26 ] J. B. Say, A Treatise on Political Economy (New York: Augustus Kelley, 1963), p. 98.
[27 ]Ibid., p. 99.
[28 ] Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, ed. John R. McCulloch (Edinburgh: Blac, 1863), pp. 350-51.
[29 ]Ibid., p. 58. We know that Ricardo agreed with McCulloch on this point. Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, ed. Piero Sraffa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1962), Vol. IX, pp. 192-93.
[30 ] Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, ed. James E. Thorold Rogers (2nd ed.: Oxford, 1880), Vol. II, p. 365.
[31 ] Adam Smith, Richessez des Nations, trans. Germain Garnier (Paris: Chez Guillaumin, 1843), pp. 167-68.
[32 ] Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics (Variorum ed.; London: Macmillan, 1961), pp. 261-64.
[34 ] See for example Allen Clarke, The Effects of the Factory System (London: Grant Richards, 1899), pp. 72-78. I particularly like Clarke’s observation. “It may happen, if the factory system continues, that the operatives’ heads will, in course of time, shrink to a rudimentary fraction of empty skull, just as man today has at the base of his spinal column the bit of bone which proves that he once sported a simian tail.” (p. 73). On the other hand, Whately Cooke Taylor, Modern Factory System (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1891), p. 435, argues: “As a matter of fact, the progress of the factory system has directly resulted in a very wide diffusion of education; nor should its indirect offices be overlooked. The inestimable importance of order and regularity in daily life has been more than once commented on. The influence on intelligence of constant association with others in a common object could not be easily overstated.” Taylor was a factory inspector and had no great love for many of the results of the factory system. John A. Hobson, The Evolution of Modern Capitalism (London: Walter Scott, 1894), p. 380, argues: “Industry which is purely monotonous, burdensome, uninteresting, uneducative, which contains within itself no elements of enjoyment, cannot be fully compensated by alternate periods of consumption or relaxation.”
[35 ] Jacob Viner, “Guide to John Rae’s Life of Adam Smith,” in John Rae, Life of Adam Smith (New York: Augustus Kelley, 1965), pp. 35-36. Viner is borne out in his thesis that Marx was not started independently of the British discussion—there is no reference to Rousseau in the index to the text of the Economic and Philosopical Manuscripts, although there is a citation to Say on alienation, p. 161.
[36 ] Nathaniel Branden, “Alienation,” in Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: New American Library, 1966), pp. 269-71.
[37 ] Bell, op. cit., pp. 367-68.
[38 ] Marx, Capital, p. 299.