“In a slave system, the money-capital invested in the purchase of slaves plays the role of the fixed capital in money-form, which is but gradually replaced after the expiration of the active life period of the slaves. Among the Athenians, therefore, the gain realized by a slave owner through the industrial employment of his slaves, or indirectly by hiring them out to other industrial employers (for instance mine owners), was regarded merely as an interest (with sinking fund) on the advanced money-capital, just as the industrial capitalist under capitalist production places a portion of the surplus-value plus the depreciation of his fixed capital to the account of interest and renewal of his fixed capital. This is also the rule in the case of capitalists offering fixed capital, such as houses, machinery, etc., for rent. Mere household slaves, who perform the necessary services or are kept as luxuries are not considered here. They correspond to the modern servant class. But the slave system—so long as it is the dominant form of productive labor in agriculture, manufacture, navigation, etc., as it was in the advanced states of Greece and Rome—preserves an element of natural economy. The slave market maintains its supply of labor-power by war, piracy, etc., and this rape is not promoted by a process of circulation, but by the natural appropriation of the labor-power of others by physical force. Even in the United States, after the conversion of the neutral territory between the wage labor states of the North and the slave labor states of the South into a slave breeding region for the South, where the slave thus raised for the market had become an element of annual reproduction, this method did not suffice for a long time, so that the African slave trade was continued as long as possible for the purpose of supplying the market.” (Marx 1907: 558–559).Here Marx seems to be saying that slaves are fixed capital, and since Marx regarded fixed capital as a type of constant capital, it would follow that – if he was not confused or his theory incoherent – he must have thought that slaves were a form of constant capital too.
Furthermore, in this quotation Marx states that the return that the slave owner gets “through the industrial employment of his slaves” or “indirectly by hiring them out to other industrial employers” was merely “interest” (along with a sinking fund for the replacement of the slaves) on his fixed capital. This appears to rule out that slaves produce surplus value.
However, as I pointed out in the previous post, in ancient Rome there was the practice called the peculium in which a slave master could allow his slave to run and effectively own a business which produced commodities for sale or even work as a labourer and earn wages which he kept, and later even buy his freedom (Plessis 2015: 96; Berger 1953: 624). So did slaves in such circumstances produce surplus value? Marx never seems to have thought of this problem, or answered it.
Even worse, how do slave-owners using slaves to produce commodities regularly get money profits from the sale of these commodities if profits are caused by surplus value and slaves cannot produce surplus value?
That Marx sees slaves as fixed capital is confirmed in volume 1 of Capital where Marx describes slaves in these terms:
“The slave-owner buys his labourer as he buys his horse. If he loses his slave, he loses capital that can only be restored by new outlay in the slave-mart.” (Marx 1906: 292).Since Marx regards working animals used in production as a kind of fixed capital (Brewer 1984: 98), this is consistent with Marx regarding slaves as fixed capital, and hence as a form of constant capital.
In addition, we have this from volume 3 of Capital in Chapter 37 where Marx says:
“The same reason would, in that case, serve also to justify slavery, since the returns from the labor of the slave, whom the slave holder has bought, represent merely the interest on the capital invested in this purchase.” (Marx 1909: 732).That is, the return from slaves as fixed capital is only interest on money capital invested in them.
But in volume 3 of Capital in Chapter 47, we also have this cryptic passage:
“Take, for instance, the slavery system. The price paid for a slave is nothing but the anticipated and capitalized surplus-value or profit, which is to be ground out of him. But the capital paid for the purchase of a slave does not belong to the capital, by which profit, surplus labor, is extracted from him. On the contrary. It is capital, which the slave holder gives away, it is a deduction from the capital, which he has available for actual production. It has ceased to exist for him, just as the capital invested in the purchase of land has ceased to exist for agriculture. The best proof of this is the fact, that it does not come back into existence for the slave holder or the land owner, until he sells the slave or the land once more. Then the same condition of things holds good for the buyer. The fact that he has bought the slave does not enable him to exploit the slave without further ceremony. He is not able to do so until he invests some other capital in production by means of the slave.” (Marx 1909: 940).It is difficult to make sense of this. The crucial three sentences are as follows:
“Take, for instance, the slavery system. The price paid for a slave is nothing but the anticipated and capitalized surplus-value or profit, which is to be ground out of him. But the capital paid for the purchase of a slave does not belong to the capital, by which profit, surplus labor, is extracted from him.” (Marx 1909: 940).First, Marx seems to be saying that surplus value can be “ground” out of slaves, but then immediately seems to deny that.
Elsewhere Marx says that slaves are fixed capital, and that only variable capital as the labour-power of free workers creates surplus value, which seems to rule out that slaves can create it.
In short, even if Marx thinks that slaves can and do produce surplus labour value in this quotation (which is questionable), then that radically contradicts what he wrote elsewhere: that labour-power is the sole source of surplus value, but a person needs to be free (not a slave) to sell labour-power (Marx 1906: 186). Moreover, interpreters of Marx like Brewer (1984: 36) and Harvey (2010: 98) agree that this is what Marx said and thought: you cannot be a slave and produce surplus labour value.
Berger, A. 1953. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.
Brewer, Anthony. 1984. A Guide to Marx’s Capital. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Harvey, David. 2010. A Companion to Marx’s Capital. Verso, London and New York.
Marx, Karl. 1906. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy (vol. 1; rev. trans. by Ernest Untermann from 4th German edn.). The Modern Library, New York.
Marx, Karl. 1907. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy. The Process of the Circulation of Capital (vol. 2; trans. by Ernst Untermann from 2nd German edn.). Charles H. Kerr & Co., Chicago, and Swan Sonnenschein & Co., London.
Marx, Karl. 1909. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy (vol. 3; trans. Ernst Untermann from 1st German edn.). Charles H. Kerr & Co., Chicago.
Plessis, Paul du. 2015. Borkowski’s Textbook on Roman Law (5th edn.). Oxford University Press, Oxford.