Wage slavery

From ProleWiki, the proletarian encyclopedia

Wage slavery is a term for wage labour which emphasises the unfree aspects of that labour. "Wage slavery" and similar terms have been in use almost as long as capitalist wage labour has existed. For example, in 1818 an English cotton worker described the cotton manufacturers as "despotic" masters who ruled over the "English Spinner slave."[1] This worker also employed an analysis later used by Karl Marx and others, that the wage worker is unfree because he cannot escape the necessity of working for some capitalist master in order to survive:

It is vain to insult our common understandings with the observation that such men are free; that the law protects the rich and poor alike, and that a spinner can leave his master if he does not like the wages. True; so he can; but where must he go? why to another to be sure.

— English cotton worker, 1818

By the time Marx had entered university, similar ideas were current in Germany. Marx's law lecturer, Eduard Gans wrote in 1836 that a visit to the English factories showed that "slavery is not yet over, that it has been formally abolished, but materially is completely in existence."[2]

Use of the wage slavery concept by Marx

Marx used the idea of wage slavery at least as early as in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in which he wrote that workers are forced to "carry out slave-labour, completely giving up their freedom, in the service of greed."[3] In his 1847 work Principles of communism, Friedrich Engels noted, as others had before, that the slave had some advantage over the wage worker in being more valuable to the master or less easily replaced:

The slave is sold once and for all; the proletarian must sell himself daily and hourly. The individual slave, property of one master, is assured an existence, however miserable it may be, because of the master's interest. The individual proletarian, property as it were of the entire bourgeois class which buys his labor only when someone has need of it, has no secure existence.

Friedrich Engels, The Principles of Communism 1847

In "Wage Labour and Capital" (1849), he wrote that "the relation of wage labour to capital, [is] the slavery of the worker, the domination of the capitalist."[4] Marx argued that although the wage labourer is not owned by any particular capitalist she or he is, in effect, owned by the capitalist class. In "Wage-Labour and Capital" he wrote that because the worker's "sole source of livelihood is the sale of his labour, [he] cannot leave the whole class of purchasers, that is, the capitalist class, without renouncing his existence. He belongs not to this or that bourgeois, but to the bourgeosie, the bourgeois class."[5]

In Capital, vol. I (1867) Marx even says that because of this structural domination over the worker,

the worker belongs to capital before he has sold himself to the capitalist.

Marx Engels Collected Works, volume 35, p. 577.

Marx also discusses the unfree aspects of wage labour at various other points in Capital, volume 1:

[Wage labour], which cannot get free from capital, and whose enslavement to capital is only concealed by the variety of individual capitalists to whom it sells itself, [forms] an essential of the reproduction of capital itself.

Capital, Vol. 1, Chap. 25, Section 1, paragraph 5.[6]

The Roman slave was held by chains; the wage-labourer is bound to his owner by invisible threads. The appearance of independence is maintained by a constant change in the person of the individual employer, and by the legal fiction (fictio juris) of a contract.

— Karl Marx, Capital, volume 1, book 1: 'The Process of Production of Capital'

In Theories of Surplus Value (1861-63), Marx noted that the French writer Simon Linquet had made the necessity argument already in 1767:[7]

The slave was precious to his master because of the money he had cost him… They were worth at least as much as they could be sold for in the market… It is the impossibility of living by any other means that compels our farm labourers to till the soil whose fruits they will not eat… It is want that compels them to go down on their knees to the rich man in order to get from him permission to enrich him… what effective gain [has] the suppression of slavery brought [him ?] He is free, you say. Ah! That is his misfortune… These men… [have] the most terrible, the most imperious of masters, that is, need. … They must therefore find someone to hire them, or die of hunger. Is that to be free?

— Simon Linguet, Théorie des lois civiles, etc., p. 467.

In the winter of 1857-1858 Marx wrote down some theoretical ideas on slave, serf, and wage labour which can be found in his Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (Foundations of a Critique of Political Economy) which was first published in Moscow in 1939. Parts of the "Chapter on Capital" are particularly relevant.[8]

Use by other socialists

The French socialist and revolutionist Louis-Auguste Blanqui had similar views to Marx on the unfreeness of wage labour:

Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881)

Moreover, there is not as great a contradiction as first appears between the social conditions of the colonies and our own. After eighteen centuries of a constant struggle undertaken against privilege and for the principle of equality, slavery could certainly not be re-established in all its naked brutality at the very heart of the country that bears the brunt of this struggle. But if it does not exist in name, it exists in fact, and the right to property, while more hypocritical in Paris than in Martinique or ancient Rome, is neither less insolent nor less aggressive. Servitude does not mean being the transferable slave of a man, or being a serf attached to his land [glèbe]; it means being completely dispossessed of the instruments of labour, and then being put at the mercy of those privileged groups who usurped them, and who retain through violence their exclusive ownership of these instruments that are indispensable to the workers. This monopolisation [accaparement] is thus a permanent despoilment. From this it becomes clear that it is not one or another political form of government that maintains the masses in a state of slavery, but rather the usurpation of property presented as the fundamental basis of the existing social order. For from the moment a privileged caste passes on land and capital through inheritance, all other citizens, though not condemned to remain slaves of any given individual, nevertheless become absolutely dependent on that caste, since their only remaining freedom is the choice of which master will rule over them.

— Louis-Auguste Blanqui, "Social Wealth Must Belong to Those Who Created It" (Le Libérateur no. 2, February 1834) 4th paragraph. Free Blanqui archive

Frederick Engels, in his 1845 Condition of the Working Class in England expressed similar ideas to those of his socialist predecessors and his colleague Marx on wage slavery:

The proletarian is helpless; left to himself, he cannot live a single day. The bourgeoisie has gained a monopoly of all means of existence in the broadest sense of the word. What the proletarian needs, he can obtain only from this bourgeoisie, which is protected in its monopoly by the power of the state. The proletarian is, therefore, in law and in fact, the slave of the bourgeoisie, which can decree his life or death. It offers him the means of living, but only for an "equivalent", for his work. It even lets him have the appearance of acting from a free choice, of making a contract with free, unconstrained consent, as a responsible agent who has attained his majority.

Fine freedom, where the proletarian has no other choice than that of either accepting the conditions which the bourgeoisie offers him, or of starving, of freezing to death, of sleeping naked among the beasts of the forests! A fine "equivalent" valued at pleasure by the bourgeoisie! And if one proletarian is such a fool as to starve rather than agree to the "equitable" propositions of the bourgeoisie, his "natural superiors", another is easily found in his place; there are proletarians enough in the world, and not all so insane as to prefer dying to living....

The only difference as compared with the old, outspoken slavery is this, that the worker of today seems to be free because he is not sold once for all, but piecemeal by the day, the week, the year, and because no one owner sells him to another, but he is forced to sell himself in this way instead, being the slave of no particular person, but of the whole property-holding class.

— Chapter on "Competition", 3d, 4th and 9th paragraphs. Free at Marxists.org French mirror.

Daniel De Leon's Daily People using the term in 1900

Misuse in defense of chattel slavery

Before the U.S. Civil War, Southern defenders of African American slavery invoked the concept of wage slavery to favorably compare the condition of their slaves to workers in the North.[9] Some argued that workers were "free but in name – the slaves of endless toil," and that their slaves were better off.[10] John Calhoun claimed that slaves in the United States lived better than wage workers in England.[11]

Some modern historians have given evidence in support of these views. According to Fogel and Engerman, plantation records show that slaves worked less, were better fed and whipped only occasionally—their material conditions in the 19th century being "better than what was typically available to free urban laborers at the time".[12] According to another study, slaves in the United States in the 19th century had improved their standard of living from the 18th century.[13] According to Mark Michael Smith of the Economic History Society, slaves could sometimes manipulate the master-slave relationship enough to "carve out a degree of autonomy".[14]

Many abolitionists in the U.S., including northern capitalists, regarded the notion of wage slavery to be spurious,[15] saying that wage workers were "neither wronged nor oppressed".[16]

Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison stated that the use of the term "wage slavery" (in a time when chattel slavery was still common) was an "abuse of language."[17]

Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans, "did not challenge the notion that those who spend their entire lives as wage laborers were comparable to slaves", though they argued that the condition was different, as laborers were likely to have the opportunity to work for themselves in the future, achieving self-employment.[18]

In 1869, The New York Times described the system of wage labor as "a system of slavery as absolute if not as degrading as that which lately prevailed at the South".[19]


Use of the term wage slavery correlates partly with the shift during the 19th century from artisanal labour to factory labour which was more regimented and in which the worker had less autonomy.

"Call it out to all who you meet: we are robbed, we are maltreated, we are slaves!"

— Journal of United Labour, May, 1891


E P Thompson in 1980

The Marxist historian E.P. Thompson has argued that the working-class' complaint during the 19th century industrial revolution in England was not reducible to a decline in material well-being. What mattered to workers was how the conditions of their work had changed - that their working life was now characterized by overwork, monotony, discipline, and most importantly the loss of freedom and independence. Thompson thus observed that 'People may consume more goods and become less happy or less free at the same time.'[20]

Thompson noted that for British workers at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, the "gap in status between a 'servant,' a hired wage-laborer subject to the orders and discipline of the master, and an artisan, who might 'come and go' as he pleased, was wide enough for men to shed blood rather than allow themselves to be pushed from one side to the other. And, in the value system of the community, those who resisted degradation were in the right." [21]

Accoding to economist William Lazonick, "Research has shown that the 'free-born Englishman' of the eighteenth century – even those who, by force of circumstance, had to submit to agricultural wage labour – tenaciously resisted entry into the capitalist workshop."[22]

United States

Statesian anarchist Emma Goldman denounced wage slavery by saying: "The only difference is that you are hired slaves instead of block slaves"[23]

In the United States the term "wage slavery" was widely used by labor organizations during the mid-19th century, but was gradually replaced by the term "wage work" towards the end of the 19th century.[24] In the 1830s the Lowell Mill Girls condemned the "degradation and subordination" of the newly emerging industrial system[25] and expressed their concerns in a protest song during their 1836 strike:

Oh! isn't it a pity, such a pretty girl as I

Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?

Oh! I cannot be a slave, I will not be a slave,

For I'm so fond of liberty,

That I cannot be a slave.[26]

The frequency with which US and Canadian labour organisations used the term "wage slavery" declined in the late 19th century and it became less synonymous with "wage labour", according to Helga Hallgrimsdottir and Cecilia Benoit

Statesian anarchist Noam Chomsky has said that:

As long as individuals are compelled to rent themselves on the market to those who are willing to hire them, as long as their role in production is simply that of ancillary tools, then there are striking elements of coercion and oppression that make talk of democracy very limited, if even meaningful…[27]

General historical points

In Google's sample of English-language books the frequency of use of the terms "wage slave", "wage slavery", "wage-slave", and "wage-slavery" becomes significant around 1870 and peaks around 1920

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the range of occupations and status positions held by chattel slaves has been nearly as broad as that held by free persons. This could be interpreted as indicating some similarities between chattel slavery and wage slavery.[28]

Anthropologist David Graeber says the first wage labor contracts we know about—whether in ancient Greece or Rome, or in the Malay or Swahili city states in the Indian ocean—were in fact contracts for the rental of chattel slaves (usually the owner would receive a share of the money, and the slave, another, with which to maintain his or her living expenses.) Such arrangements were quite common in New World slavery as well, whether in the United States or Brazil. The Black liberationist and Marxist C. L. R. James contended that most of the techniques of human organization employed on factory workers during the industrial revolution were first developed on slave plantations.[29]

It is possible that the necessity argument – i.e., that the threat of starvation forces those without property to work for wages – is less compelling in some modern situations such as the welfare state than it was in the 19th century. However, modern methods of maintaining hegemony,[30] and instilling false concsiousness may play a similar role in entrapping workers.

Psychological effects of wage labour

Investigative journalist Robert Kuttner in Everything for Sale, analyzes the work of public-Health scholars Jeffrey Johnson and Ellen Hall about modern conditions of work, and concludes that "to be in a life situation where one experiences relentless demands by others, over which one has relatively little control, is to be at risk of poor health, physically as well as mentally." Accoding to Kuttner, "Epidemiological data confirm that [under wage labor], lower-paid, lower-status workers are more likely to experience the most clinically damaging forms of stress, in part because they have less control over their work."[31]

It has also been contended that wage labour "implies erosion of the human personality… [because] some men submit to the will of others, arousing in these instincts which predispose them to cruelty and indifference in the face of the suffering of their fellows."[32]

Erich Fromm noted that if a person perceives himself as being what he owns, then when that person loses (or even thinks of losing) what he "owns" (e.g. the good looks or sharp mind that allow him to sell his labor for high wages), then, a fear of loss may create anxiety and authoritarian tendencies because that person's sense of identity is threatened. In contrast, when a person's sense of self is based on what he experiences in a state of being (creativity, ego or loss of ego, love, sadness, taste, sight etc.) with a less materialistic regard for what he once had and lost, or may lose, then less authoritarian tendencies prevail. The state of being, in his view, flourishes under a worker-managed workplace and economy, whereas self-ownership entails a materialistic notion of self, created to rationalize the lack of worker control that would allow for a state of being.[33]

Bourgeois-ideological opposition to the concept

Philosopher Gary Young has argued that the same basic reasoning that considers the individual to be forced to sell his labor to a capitalist in order to survive, also applies to the capitalist in that he is forced to hire a worker to survive otherwise his capital will be exhausted through consumption, leaving him nothing to purchase the necessities of life.[34] In this sense, the capitalists depend on the workers as the workers depend on the capitalists.[35]

Austrian economics argues that a person is not "free" unless they can sell their labor because otherwise that person has no self-ownership and will be owned by a "third party" of individuals.[36]

See also

Other works

  • Bruno Leipold, 2022. "Chains and Invisible Threads: Liberty and Domination in Marx's Account of Wage Slavery". Chapter of a larger book by Leipold. Chapter available from Academia.edu with email registration.


  1. Bruno Leipold, pp 194-5.
  2. Cited in Bruno Leipold, p 195.
  3. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Marx Engels Collected Works, volume 3, p. 237. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975–2005), henceforth MECW).
  4. MECW, volume , p. 237.
  5. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Marx Engels Collected Works, volume 9, p. 203. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975–2005.)
  6. Capital, Ch. 25, Section 1
  7. Chapter 7 Marxists.org
  8. "The first presupposition, to begin with, is that the relation of slavery or serfdom has been suspended. Living labour capacity belongs to itself, and has disposition over the expenditure of its forces, through exchange. Both sides confront each other as persons. Formally, their relation has the equality and freedom of exchange as such. As far as concerns the legal relation, the fact that this form is a mere semblance, and a deceptive semblance, appears as an external matter. What the free worker sells is always nothing more than a specific, particular measure of force-expenditure [Kraftäusserung]; labour capacity as a totality is greater than every particular expenditure. He sells the particular expenditure of force to a particular capitalist, whom he confronts as an independent individual. It is clear that this is not his relation to the existence of capital as capital, i.e. to the capitalist class. Nevertheless, in this way everything touching on the individual, real person leaves him a wide field of choice, of arbitrary will, and hence of formal freedom. In the slave relation, he belongs to the individual, particular owner, and is his labouring machine. As a totality of force-expenditure, as labour capacity, he is a thing [Sache] belonging to another, and hence does not relate as subject to his particular expenditure of force, nor to the act of living labour. In the serf relation he appears as a moment of property in land itself, is an appendage of the soil, exactly like draught-cattle. In the slave relation the worker is nothing but a living labour-machine, which therefore has a value for others, or rather is a value. The totality of the free worker's labour capacity appears to him as his property, as one of his moments, over which he, as subject, exercises domination, and which he maintains by expending it. This is to be developed later under wage labour. (Grundrisse, "Chapter on Capital", line 501 of this copy of Robert C Tucker's Marx Engels Reader.)
  9. Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, p. XIX; Derrick Jensen, The Culture of Make Believe
  10. The Hireling and the Slave — Antislavery Literature Project eserver accessdate=09-01-25
  11. Domenico Losurdo (2011). Liberalism: A Counter-History: 'White Servants between Metropolis and Colony: Proto Liberal Society' (p. 69). [PDF] Verso. ISBN 9781844676934 [LG]
  12. Fogel & Engerman, Without Consent or Contract, New York: Norton, 1989, p. 391.
  13. The Height of American Slaves: New Evidence of Slave Nutrition and Health Jstor Requires subscription
  14. Debating Slavery: Economy and Society in the Antebellum American South, p. 44
  15. Foner, Eric. 1998. The Story of American Freedom. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 66
  16. Scott McNall et al., 2002. Current Perspectives in Social Theory, p.95 (Emerald Group Publishing) Google books
  17. Foner, Eric 1998. p. 66
  18. Michael J. Sandel, Democracy's Discontent. Pp 181-4. [1]
  19. Ref was to a Google book
  20. The Making of the English Working Class, (1963), p. 211.
  21. The Making of the English Working Class, possibly page 599.
  22. Competitive Advantage on the Shop Floor, p. 37.
  23. Emma Goldman: A documentary History of the American Years
  24. Helga Hallgrimsdottir and Cecilia Benoit, 2007. "From Wage Slaves to Wage Workers: Cultural Opportunity Structures and the Evolution of the Wage Demands of Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor, 1880-1900", Social Forces, Vol. 85, Number 3, pp. 1393-1411. http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/social_forces/v085/85.3hallgrimsdottir.html
  25. Rogue States By Noam Chomsky; Profit Over People by Noam Chomsky
  26. Liberty. American Studies. CUNY
  27. Interview at [http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/19760725.htm Chomsky.info
  28. "The highest position slaves ever attained was that of slave minister… A few slaves even rose to be monarchs, such as the slaves who became sultans and founded dynasties in Islām. At a level lower than that of slave ministers were other slaves, such as those in the Roman Empire, the Central Asian Samanid domains, Ch’ing China, and elsewhere, who worked in government offices and administered provinces. … The stereotype that slaves were careless and could only be trusted to do the crudest forms of manual labor was disproved countless times in societies that had different expectations and proper incentives."The sociology of slavery: Slave occupations Encyclopaedia Britannica
  29. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology p. 37
  30. Antonio Gramsci, 1992 [1930s and 40s]. Prison Notebooks. New York : Columbia University Press, pp.233-38
  31. Kuttner, Everything for Sale., pp. 153-4
  32. Quotation in by Jose Peirats, The CNT in the Spanish Revolution, vol. 2, p. 76
  33. To Have Or to Be? by Erich Fromm
  34. Young, Gary. 1978. Justice and Capitalist Production. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 8, no. 3, p. 448
  35. Nino, Carlos Santiago. 1992. Rights. NYU Press. p.343
  36. Ludwig von Mises, 1996 [1949]. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (4th ed.). San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes. ISBN 978-0-930073-18-3, pp. 194–99. (interpersonal exchange accessed at March 11, 2008)

External links