indirect slavery, the slavery of proletariat

Letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov,

All official and liberal science defends wage-slavery, whereas Marxism has declared relentless war on that slavery


You hear the term "wage slavery" used quite a bit in Marxism.

  • how does Marx show that capitalism is a kind of slavery?

Clearly there are overlaps in that the poor are legally obliged to work if they are to have minimum income, and in the profit extracted from workers. Obviously there are less pleasing dis-analogies, in the unavoidable barbarism of the slave trade.

Am I missing anything more esoteric which appears in the literature?

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    I'm kind of lost as to how any of your comments answer What other than our own opinions would we use to determine the cogency of this metaphor? Explain?
    – virmaior
    Jul 19, 2016 at 22:43
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    Most books on marxism (in my experience) are written by either anti-communist conspiracy theorists or marxists themselves. The former think everything marxism says is BS; the latter everything is gospel truth. So the former thinks it's not cogent; the latter that it's deeply and massively cogent.
    – virmaior
    Jul 19, 2016 at 22:51
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    and both camps probably include philosophers @virmaior
    – user6917
    Jul 19, 2016 at 22:55
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    @AgentSmith "Eat your words, but don't go hungry. Words have always nearly hung me."
    – Scott Rowe
    May 17 at 1:36
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    @ScottRowe, and yes don't make me do that too! Please. I'm terrible at putting my money where my mouth is. Thanks though, it kinda puts me in my place. May 17 at 1:39

5 Answers 5


A capitalist society is based on the systemic exchange of commodities. In this system, the application of labour to materials is itself a commodity; so workers are paid (a "wage") "for their labour". Otherwise they would be unable to buy commodities, and the system would not be based on systemic exchange of commodities.

But there must be some mistake in that. If I sell a ton of apples, this operation cannot create value, and will only transfer value if it is a lopsided purchase. If the apples are sold at their value, neither buyier nor seller will gain anything. Of course, in real practice, purchases are often made above or below the value of commodities; but this cannot be the rule, or the systemic exchange of commodities won't endure. Which means, as a whole, as a system, those deviations from value must cancel each others.

But how does it happen, then, that a profit is made in the apple trade?

That's because the producers of apples do not, in a capitalist society, sell apples. Instead, they sell their ability to work - what is called "labour power". But "labour power" is a different commodity from apples, and it has a different value. So there is a quid pro quo here: the company producing apples buys one commodity - the labour power of its workers (and it buys it, in normal conditions, at its full value) - but the end result of the operation is that it has now a stock, not of labour power, but of apples. If the value of apples is bigger than the value of the labour power implied in their production, then you have a systemic transfer of value - from workers to employers - that does not violate the conditions for a sustained system of commodity production.

(As it is easy to realise, if the value of the labour power implied in the production of a commodity is not smaller than the value of that commodity, then the production of that given commodity is impossible under capitalist conditions, or, in other words, if it is produced, it must be produced as a non-commodity.)

Evidently, all this is possible because labour creates value; in labouring, human beings create more than they expend.

But that is what Marx and Marxists call "wage slavery": the systemic transfer of value, from workers to employers, that keeps workers' economic earnings always close to the socially acceptable subsistence minimum.

  • "subsistence" and "transfer of value"; that's a neat reply. thanks
    – user6917
    Aug 1, 2016 at 17:00
  • the second term doesn't quite seem like marx's, is there a specific phrase he uses? the mechanism which underlies 'surplus value': perhaps just 'commodification of labour'?
    – user6917
    Aug 1, 2016 at 17:08
  • @MATHEMETICIAN - It is also ambiguous, as it refers to, a. the value that is transfered from constant capital to final products (and it is in this sense that it is used by Marx), and, b. the value that is transfered from one economic agent to another, whenever we have a lopsided purchase. Aug 19, 2016 at 12:47
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    This falsely assumes that the apples have the same value to buyer and seller, but economic value is subjective. Different people can value things differently (or the same thing differently at different times), due to circumstances, tastes, or other factors. Furthermore, labor in and of itself does not create value: One can expend much labor digging a useless ditch and filling it back up, or making a nigh-useless good or service, or making it inefficiently. Expending labor on something does not necessarily make it valuable.
    – user76284
    Sep 10, 2022 at 3:39
  • Some things that are non-commodities: healthcare, water and sewer service, policing and other things without which society and even continued life would be impossible. How do we value and apportion things like these? How do we "pay for" them? Capitalism does not have answers, so it is inadequate.
    – Scott Rowe
    May 16 at 10:38

Capitalism is a natural progression (and possibly evolution) from the feudal system of Guild-master/apprentice to factory based, unskilled laborers which require no specific status or knowledge to operate and complete tasks. This evolution moves the slaver from Guild-master to, now called, owner, or what he calls, bourgeoisie (which is directly associated with the capitalist business owner). This is a mere structure change, but now, in the modern era, there isn't a necessity to have ownership or castes. He hypothesised that a rise and revolt of the slave working class (slave to the "wage"), or proletariat, against the bourgeoisie due to the realization that they lacked purpose within society (due to the fact that all labors were being conducted by the proletariat, or working-man).

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    I'd add that 'capitalism' is a meaningless distinction between the two phases. Instead it's more accurate to say that human societies have always been capitalistic in one way or another. People in the 21st century who decry 'capitalism' as an intentional phenomenon don't understand human nature. Marx probably represented a striving against the current power structure as is only natural in the evolution of any society. Whoever you're talking about, groups, individuals, whatever, they're probably trying to gain more power.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Jul 22, 2016 at 14:59
  • @CanadianCoder Marx is specifically addressing industrialization, which in the late 1800s was quickly spreading. Prior to industrialization it was necessary for a person to learn a "trade" as an apprentice. He talks about other forms of capitalism, and this "slavery" always existed, but the freedom from it only existed in an industrial nation. Jul 22, 2016 at 15:24
  • well, capitalism specifically references post-industrial revolution, "capitalism", as you call it, was referenced as feudalism. (Just to clarify) Jul 24, 2016 at 16:38
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    @CanadianCoder You can of course use words as you wish. But if we are referencing Marxist theory, then we need to use words as Marx did, and he certainly didn't think of the distinction as meaningless. To Marx, capitalism begins when capital acquires control of the process of production. As production in feudal societies was not controlled by capital, they were not capitalist societies. (Evidently, if we define capitalism otherwise, such as "capitalism = evil" or "capitalism = social inequality" then the disctinction may not apply. But then we are definitely not talking about Marx or Marxism.) Aug 1, 2016 at 15:06
  • True. I tend to use Philosophy SE as a vehicle to stretch out philosophies than as a reference point, but I'd agree that for the purpose of SE we need to confine ourselves to what Marx actually said, so I should have avoided commenting. My answer would have been more appropriate for a discussion forum.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Aug 1, 2016 at 19:18

I take it that wage-slavery is a polemical term, particularly, if as you do, one compares it to the actual 'barbarism' of real slavery, and which until recently was a real historical phenomenon.

Arendt points out that in the Greek polis a citizen accounted himself free if he did not bear the burden of labour, for which he had his slaves. If, however, every man is free in this sense then who is to carry out the labour of labouring? For this, men will have to come together to decide how to bear the burden amongst themselves. It seems a little hard to call that which is neccessary a form of slavery.

For Hegel, this is the construction of civil society; then every man who is free in himself will have to find himself through these very real limits.

Arendt, going on from Marx, points out that the labouring classes have been freed, but there has been no emancipation from labour itself. This she calls the only 'utopian' element in Marxs work, and she speculates that automation may eventually emancipate men in their plurality from this burden; though she doesn't consider that this will emancipate men from themselves; on the contrary, she supposes accelerating technology may amplify desire so that men become mere appendages to an environment made by machines.

Nevertheless, exploitative forms of waged work can come close to slavery or its condition. And this is what Marx is focused upon.

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    You cannot free yourself from all labor unless you make someone else do it and even then you'd either be at their grace or you'd need to invest controlling labor, which is unproductive and just protects the status quo. Hence you're still unfree. So that is a pointless aim. However if you define economic freedom as the ability to decide what is produced by whom, for whom, for how long, why and why not and so on. Then you can actually emancipate people by giving them agency in this process rather than having them by means to someone else's ends. And while brutality became less visible...
    – haxor789
    Aug 31, 2022 at 13:16
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    ... The economic freedom of the laborer did not meaningfully increase. The vast majority of people still work the majority of their waking day for the profit and benefit of someone else, for the purpose of making ends meet. If you don't focus on the brutality of slavery, but on the economic lack of agency, then that's not that different. A slave would also have to be cared for in so far as to keep them alive and a capitalist would have to do the same, just that the task of caring is relegated to the individual as more unpaid work. While actual agency is not attained, is it?
    – haxor789
    Aug 31, 2022 at 13:19
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    @haxor789: We've been gradually emancipating ourselves from labour through automation. This was the crucial point that inspired the early socialists. They could see which direction technology was moving in and they wanted this to occur for the general benefit of mankind. This is no utopian dream but a very realisable one. We've seen it in our lifetime and this process will no doubt continue. Of course, there are many forces that conspire against such emancipation but I have no doubt that in the long run that this dream will become a reality. Sep 1, 2022 at 5:36
  • @haxor789: Moreover, even without automation, there is no need for the "brutality" of Capitalism. And nor is it correct to say that men must always work for the "profit" of others. Its quite possible for men to trade with each other freely and fairly. That this has not generally occured has more to do with the evils of Capitalism and its tyranny than it has to do with this possibility. Sep 1, 2022 at 5:40
  • Ok first of all you'd need to define "labour", because "work" has many facets from simply killing time, to productive work (work that produces something), to work as a service (for others), as a means to advance oneself or a collective, as self-actualization, as a purpose of it's own, as exploration, exploitation (both of things and people) as a necessity or as a hobby. Some of them are bad, tedious, annoying and getting rid of them frees people, others are vital and necessary even if work itself is no longer necessary to sustain an existence.
    – haxor789
    Sep 1, 2022 at 10:20

Slaves, by definition, are people who labor and produce goods but receive nothing from that labor or those goods except the capacity for mere subsistence. Slaves get enough to survive so they can labor the next day, while all other proceeds from their labor go to the slave-owner for his enrichment. In this sense, a slave is effectively a draft animal akin to an ox or a horse. They get put in the traces and smacked until they work, they get the minimum food and shelter needed to keep them healthy for future work, and they are allowed to breed to produce the next generation of labor animals. And when they cn no longer work, they are either put down or put out to pasture, depending on whether the owner feels any affection for them

The concept of wage-slavery is meant to point out that modern workers under the capitalist system are effectively slaves. Instead of being given minimal food and shelter directly in exchange for their driven labor, they are given a minimal wage (which they have to use to purchase their own food and shelter) in exchange for their driven labor. In Marx's day that was severe: children and adults would have to work twelve hour shifts just to keep a roof over the family's head and a day's worth of food on the table. In the modern era wages have become a more comfortable form of slavery, at least for the middle class, but that doesn't change the 'enslaved' nature of it. You work, you kiss the boss-man's a$$, you produce goods for the owner to profit from, or (as far as the boss-man and the owners care) you can go live and die in a camp by the roadside.

When our means of subsistence is entirely controlled by someone else, someone who takes everything they want first and tosses a bit of it back to keep us going, we are slaves. And honestly, a lot of people are perfectly happy being slaves, so long as they are comfortable and taken care of. But not every one wants to be a slave, and many of those who wouldn't normally mind being enslaved don't end up in situations where they are remotely comfortable or taken care of. And in those cases we see the sheer brutality of the wage-slave system.

  • In the context of debates involving what I consider to be libertarian capitalism versus libertarian socialism, I have thought a great deal about the macroeconomic model that I call The Company Town (TCT). In a geographic region imagine all non-household workers are paid wages on the books of TCT. The workers produce a mix of public goods, private investments goods, and private consumptions goods. Wages are used to pay taxes to TCT, draw goods from TCT, or store financial savings as liabilities of TCT. Rich households must hold TCT equity. Socialist households must run TCT like a partnership. May 17 at 18:22
  • Whether the TCT society is organized as a capitalist organization, with equity claims that accumulate to the wealthy households, or as a socialist organization, with partnership claims to all the TCT capital by all households in common, the society will face coordination problems involving decisions to both produce and distribute public goods, private investment goods, and consumption goods. Socialism does not specify how to make those decisions in large groups that manage production and distribution by committee. In law firms partners use power, influence, and constantly renegotiate the deal. May 17 at 18:26
  • @SystemTheory: That's an interesting thought experiment; I'll have to reflect on it more deeply. But just on first blush I might suggest something for you to factor in: what I call the 'entitlement/equity' problem. Any community has to somehow balance the equity of all in the community against the entitlements of specific individuals and groups. Capitalism (in degraded form) overvalues entitlement; socialism (in degraded form) overvalues equity. May 17 at 19:44
  • @SystemTheory: There are entitlements that are earned and deserved, and there are entitlements that are neither earned nor deserved, The first advance society and create equity, while the second set society back and disrupt equity. That's the stress point, but no one really wants to pay attention to iy. May 17 at 19:48
  • The TCT model puts the whole wage bill, and other accounting conventions, onto one balance sheet, and this is a consolidated model of either a capitalist or socialist society. Arguments over wages, profits, and the mix of public and private goods, and their distribution, come into better focus. For example, wages are below output prices if there is profit, so profit comes from investment and/or debt. Unemployment is a coordination problem. If individual liberty is the dominant value of anarcho-capitalism or libertarian socialism it is very hard to identify how to politically optimize liberty. May 18 at 19:04

I think that the use of "wage slavery" by Marx can be seen as metaphorical and polemical, as distinct from real slavery. The term "modern slavery" has been coined to cover people who are trafficked into effective slavery. In my view, some poor people are being subjected to a state of effective slavery through debt, insufficient state benefits, and unequal employment contracts. The idea of universal basic income provides a route to eliminating wage slavery and effective slavery.

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    as a lapsed militant of sorts, i can sort of understand the claim that contemporary society is destroying any true marxists out there, in a similar but less overt and violent way to the slave trade did its slaves. there is an undecurrent of oppression and surveillance if you want to protest economics. see e.g. theguardian.com/politics/2023/nov/18/… ofc conditions are far, far superior to the north atlantic slave trade, even if those power differentials do still exist
    – user67675
    Nov 18 at 17:02

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