by Bob Avakian
August 28, 2023
In a previous article, I analyzed what exploitation is, how exploitation is the basis of the capitalist system, and how exploitation can be ended by “making revolution to overthrow this system, and replacing it with a fundamentally different and far better system, based on the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America.”1 Here I am going to examine further some key dimensions of this.
Economic systems (modes of production) that are based on exploitation are ones in which part of the labor of those who are exploited is remunerated (paid for, in some form), while another part of that labor is not remunerated (is unpaid), and the wealth created by that unpaid labor is appropriated (taken) by a force standing above and in effect dictating to those who are compelled to work under these conditions.
Capitalism and Slavery
Capitalism is not the only system based on exploitation. But it is a system in which the exploitation is not immediately clear. It is a system in which it appears on the surface that the labor is “paid in full”—that an “equal exchange” has taken place between the capitalist and the workers the capitalist exploits: the capitalist pays the workers a wage, and they carry out work for the capitalist. But, in fact, as in all systems of exploitation, part of the labor of the workers exploited under capitalism is paid and part is unpaid: the wage of the workers is equal to only a part of the value (wealth) they create while working for the capitalist, and the rest of the value created by their labor goes to the capitalist.
Slavery is the opposite of capitalism in this regard: Under the slave system, it appears on the surface that all of the labor of the slaves is “unpaid,” because they are generally not paid in money. But the reality is that the slaves are “paid” in the fact that, with all the terrible cruelty of the slave system, the slave-owners do provide the slaves with the bare minimum requirements of life, such as some form of shelter, food, clothing, etc. If the slave-owners did not do this, then the slaves would quickly be unable to work, and the slave-owners would go bankrupt. What especially distinguishes slavery, as the horrific system it is, is not that the labor of the slaves is entirely “unpaid,” but that the slaves are literally the property of the slave-owners, with everything that involves—the terrible atrocities continually visited upon the slaves by the slave-owners—including mass rape, selling children away from their parents, whipping and other brutal punishment of slaves, not only for revolting against the slave-owners but for the mere attempt to escape, or simply for failing to meet constantly expanding demands on their labor (for example, how much cotton they are required to pick daily).
Obviously, for the slaves, there is nothing good about the slave system—it is an absolute horror.
To review: In both of these systems—the capitalist system and the slave system—those who carry out the labor that produces things are exploited, but in the one case (capitalism) it appears that the labor is entirely paid, with a wage, in a seemingly “equal exchange,” while in the other case (slavery) the appearance is that all the labor is unpaid. But, with the very real differences between these systems of exploitation, in both cases the labor is partly paid, and partly unpaid.
This is the essential and defining feature of a system of exploitation: those who are exploited are compelled, by one means or another, to carry out labor that creates wealth beyond what is necessary for their survival and ability to work—and that wealth goes not to them, or for their benefit, but to the class of people that stands above and in effect dictates to them.2
The essence of exploitation is not that people are compelled to work hard. Nor is it simply that they produce a surplus through unpaid labor. It is that they are compelled to do this under conditions that are oppressive and alienating: because those they work for have the power of life and death over them, in one form or another… because they have no say in what the purpose of their labor is, nor how the wealth they create is used, and for whose benefit… and because the appropriation, by exploiters, of the wealth that is created strengthens the position of those exploiters over those who are forced to work for them.
Under slavery, the slave-owners’ power of life and death over the slaves is obvious. Under capitalism this power of life and death is less blatant and extreme, but it exists in a real sense because the exploited class of wage-workers (the proletariat) is in a position where they can only survive (can only acquire the means to live) by working for, and being exploited by, one capitalist or another—and those capitalists will continually drive them harder, or throw them out on the street, in accordance with the needs of the capitalists who are themselves driven by the relentless competition among capitalists. (The existence of significant numbers of people who cannot be profitably exploited, and are therefore unemployed, is a constant feature of capitalism; and the constant threat of unemployment strengthens the hand of the capitalists over the workers they do employ, and exploit.)
Putting an End to Exploitation and Oppression
To end exploitation, it is necessary to end the conditions on which exploitation rests. And this requires the radical, thorough transformation of society, and ultimately the world, as a whole. It requires, as the first great leap, overthrowing the economic and political system of capitalism, and bringing about its replacement by a socialist system, which will move to abolish the basis for exploitation. In the fundamental realm of the economy (the mode of production), this requires expropriating the capitalist exploiters: ending the capitalists’ ownership and control of the means of production (land, raw materials, factories, machinery and other technology used in production), converting these means of production into the common property of society, utilized by the socialist government, in a planned way, in the interests of the masses of people who have created these means of production, through their collective labor (even as that labor had been carried out under conditions of exploitation by capitalists).3
But, as much as this is a crucial—and, in a real sense, historic—step, it is just the beginning. It is still the case that, for society to function, and to meet the needs of the people (basic material needs, but also political, social, intellectual and cultural needs) on a continually expanding basis, it is necessary for productive labor to be carried out, as the foundation for all this. To eliminate exploitation, it is necessary to transform the character of that labor. It must become labor that is not exploitative and not alienating for those who carry it out.
There is a profound, fundamental difference between being driven to work hard by a force standing above you—in a real sense dictating to you—and on the other hand working hard together with loved ones, friends, and comrades to accomplish goals that you have arrived at and agreed upon in common. Many people have experienced this difference in their everyday lives. Expanded to the level of a country, and ultimately the whole world, this is the profound, fundamental difference between living under a system based on exploitation, such as capitalism, and living in a system whose goal is to eliminate exploitation, and all the oppressive relations that go along with exploitation.
To achieve this historic transformation, the character of labor and the relations in which that labor is carried out (the relations of production) must be transformed, along with (and as the foundation for) transforming the character of the society as a whole. For any society to continue functioning, a surplus must be produced—beyond what people need to fulfill the essential requirements of life. A fundamental difference between an exploitative and non-exploitative system is in how that surplus is created, how it is utilized, and how decisions about this are made.
In socialist society, people are guaranteed employment, and in that sense the individual struggle for survival has become a thing of the past—is no longer something that people have to be concerned with or worry about. But, beyond that, the surplus created in this socialist society must be utilized to continually expand the basis to fulfill the all-around needs of the people, including in the realms of education, culture, and so on; to deal with natural disasters and act as caretakers of the environment; to defend the socialist country from attack—and, crucially, to provide an expanding material foundation for the struggle to eliminate and uproot relations of oppression within the country and to support revolutionary struggle in the world overall—while also providing for future generations. So, once again, the decisive question is: how, under what conditions, is that surplus produced, and for what purposes is it utilized?
To move beyond a system based on exploitation, not only must private ownership of the means of production by competing capitalists be eliminated, and replaced by socialized ownership by society as a whole, but oppressive divisions characteristic of the old, exploitative society must be overcome. This includes the division between mental and manual labor—the unequal relations between those whose labor is essentially intellectual (mental labor) and those who carry out labor that is essentially physical (manual labor). It also includes oppressive racial, sexual and gender relations, and other divisions which contain the basis for oppression and antagonism between different parts of society. All this is built into capitalism, and other systems based on exploitation. And all this must be transformed, in order for exploitation to be ended. At the same time, the masses of people must take part, in an increasingly conscious way, in determining the goals, and in the planning to meet the goals, in the development of the economy and the society overall, not only with the particular country in mind but with the fundamental orientation of contributing to the transformation of the world as a whole, toward the ultimate goal of communism, with the abolition of all exploitation and oppression everywhere.
All this is the basis on which the labor that is carried out as the foundation for society becomes not alienating and exploitative, but instead contributes to emancipation on a fundamentally voluntary and increasingly conscious basis. Once again, what is involved is the profound difference between being compelled to work for a force standing above and dictating to you—which is the situation under capitalism and all systems of exploitation—and, on the other hand, working together with others to develop, in a continually expanding way, the material/economic basis to achieve goals which have been decided upon in common, and which continually expand human beings’ freedom from the mere struggle for survival, as well as from oppressive relations—a freedom that is increasingly brought about in socialist society, and achieved in even fuller dimensions once communism has been brought into being, on a world scale.4
The basic orientation, and concrete guidelines, for bringing into being a society, and ultimately a whole world, where this can be made a reality, are set forth in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America.5
Everyone who hungers for, or dreams about, a world where human beings will no longer be exploited and oppressed—but instead can truly thrive, in the fullest of their humanity—needs to be consciously, actively, tirelessly working for the emancipating revolution that can make this a reality. And, for reasons I have analyzed in a number of works, this is a “rare time” when this revolution is not only urgently necessary but also more possible—and this “rare time” must not be wasted and thrown away but seized on, with conscious determination to bring about this emancipating revolution.6
Notes, Further Explanations and Points to Explore
by Bob Avakian
2. Karl Marx, the founder of communism, pointed out that in the feudal system the relation between paid and unpaid labor is more clear: In this system, serfs carry out labor on land that is owned by feudal lords; a large part of what the serfs produce goes to the feudal lord, while the serfs are allowed to keep only a small part for their very basic needs. The sharecropping system that existed in the southern United States for more or less a century after the Civil War—in which masses of Black people (and some poor whites) were viciously exploited—was essentially a form of this feudal system. But, once more, this feudal system of exploitation, in which the relation between paid and unpaid labor is more obvious, has in common with all systems of exploitation that part of the labor of those who are exploited is paid, in one form or another, and part is unpaid, and the value created by that unpaid part is appropriated by a force standing above, and in a real sense dictating to, those who are forced to labor under these conditions. [back]
3. In Breakthroughs: The Historic Breakthrough by Marx, and the Further Breakthrough with the New Communism, A Basic Summary, I discuss the role of labor in creating the means of production. Breakthroughs is also available at revcom.us. [back]
4 & 5. An observation on the following :
Once again, what is involved is the profound difference between being compelled to work for a force standing above and dictating to you—which is the situation under capitalism and all systems of exploitation—and, on the other hand, working together with others to develop, in a continually expanding way, the material/economic basis to achieve goals which have been decided upon in common, and which continually expand human beings’ freedom from the mere struggle for survival, as well as from oppressive relations—a freedom that is increasingly brought about in socialist society, and achieved in even fuller dimensions once communism has been brought into being, on a world scale.
Where it is said that the goals “have been decided upon in common,” this refers to an overall process which involves, on the one hand, mass forms for people to directly discuss and debate these goals, and how to achieve them, and elections at various levels of society, up to the central government level, through which people have input into the big questions regarding the development of the economy and the society overall. While some of this will take place at the level of the basic economic units and institutions of society (for example, schools as well as places of work), it will all feed into the different levels of government, up to the central government for the society as a whole. It is through this overall process—and not at the level of particular factories or other workplaces or institutions—that the ultimate decisions will be made concerning the goals, and the means for achieving the goals, with regard to the development of the economy and the society as a whole. While input from the basic levels of society is a necessary and crucial part of this process, if decision making is left at the level of particular economic units or other particular parts of society—rather than being ultimately determined by the institutions of government for the society as a whole, drawing on input from throughout society—then the result will be that the needs and interests of the different particular parts of society will come into conflict with each other, the larger common interests of people will be undermined, and society will be drawn back in the direction of reverting to a system based on exploitation.
What is needed is an overall plan for the goals, and the means of achieving the goals, for the society as a whole, with all the different parts of society having a significant degree of input, and taking significant initiative, within this overall framework and plan. And the standard for this plan to embody and promote relations that are not exploitative, but emancipating, is that they contribute to continually expanding human beings’ freedom from the mere struggle for survival, as well as from oppressive relations.
Once more: The basic orientation, and concrete guidelines, for bringing into being a society, and ultimately a whole world, where this can be made a reality, are set forth in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, which is available at TheBobAvakianInstitute.org and at revcom.us. [back to 4] [back to 5]
6. See, for example, Something Terrible, Or Something Truly Emancipating: Profound Crisis, Deepening Divisions, The Looming Possibility Of Civil War—And The Revolution That Is Urgently Needed, A Necessary Foundation, A Basic Roadmap For This Revolution, which is available at revcom.us. [back]
Finally: Food for thought, and further exploration. Another important requirement for advancing to a communist world—moving entirely beyond capitalism, and all relations of exploitation and oppression—is that the productive capacity of society has developed, on a non-exploitative basis, to the point where the essential needs of people for a decent life, and the overall needs of society, can be met without most people having to spend most of their waking hours in physical labor, and they are freed to take part in many other dimensions of work and life. Along with this, income inequality among the people must be eliminated and surpassed, with money no longer playing a role in the relations among people—a situation where money no longer determines or influences the production and exchange of things in society, and in fact money has been eliminated altogether in the functioning of society. What the necessary conditions are, and how society can function, in a way that enables human beings to live in a world where money has no role and has been eliminated, along with relations of inequality and oppression… where people’s needs can be met, on a continually expanding basis, without money, and without the need for people to calculate in the miserly terms of money relations… how society can function according to the communist principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs,” where people contribute to society voluntarily, free from concern as to whether their needs will be met, and in turn people receive what they need for a decent life, without any exchange of money: All this involves complex questions, which are definitely worth digging into, even as this is beyond the scope of this particular article.